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Anybody with a working knowledge of Mary Timony’s long indie-rock career might expect some thorny or abstruse songwriting on Rips, the debut album by her new trio, Ex Hex. Wrong! Shout it out: Zero bummers here. The D.C. singer/guitarist’s gifts have often compelled her to wander with a purpose, but now she’s hunkering down. It’s 35 minutes of Orange amps and earworms.
Rips is definitely smart, though, and slyly so. The lyrics focus on social and romantic uncertainties, but the tunes are transferrable to any stage of life that has some high-school nonsense in it. The mode of delivery—edgy power-pop—is more than kid’s stuff, too. Timony’s rhythm lines and leads are studied but loose; drummer Laura Harris shows equal comfort with punkish runs and compressed, midtempo grooves; and bassist Betsy Wright bridges it all with a cool, behind-the-beat sensibility.
The album is anchored by songs with higher BPMs—the hair-shaking opening track “Don’t Wanna Lose,” the creep appraisal “You Fell Apart” (key line: “I always knew you were strange from the start”), the oldies-influenced “Waterfall,” and so on—but Ex Hex really shows its chops on the more patient numbers. “Hot and Cold” has worthy undercurrents of glam and an expertly arch video featuring Ian Svenonius, and the sensuous “Waste Your Time” bookends some of the album’s least cocky lyrics (“There are colors that you can’t see/I wanna say to you so naturally”) with a brilliantly brassy guitar lead.
The obvious digression here would be an exploration of what Timony took away from her time in the indie supergroup Wild Flag. The short answer: Look up footage of that band covering Television’s “See No Evil,” with Timony energetically embracing the Tom Verlaine role. She’s always known how to be a frontwoman; she’s not always done it as a full-bore rocker. The more salient reference point might be Ex Hex’s decision to record much of Rips at a studio in North Carolina with Mitch Easter, known for producing R.E.M.’s early albums, leading Let’s Active, and, more recently, enlisting as part of Big Star’s live-show lineup.
Easter also co-produced 1997’s The Magic City, the second album by Helium, Timony’s second band. That record (which Matador Records positioned as a successor to Carole King’s Tapestry or Pere Ubu’s The Modern Dance) has held up relatively well, but it’s several worlds away from Rips. Timony’s dream of the ’90s included cellos and weird six-string tunings, stuff that carried her through parts of the ’00s, too.
Now she’s slinging and singing, but there are tidy hints of the Helium gal at the end of Rips. The kickass rave-up at the end of “Everywhere” includes a loud solo that’s so nice she plays it twice; it’s a quintessential display of her singular sense of timing. And the slow, bluesy “Outro” is too self-aware to serve merely as denouement. “I follow the silver stream of what I can’t forget,” she sings. “I wait for worlds that haven’t happened yet.” It ends with another spot-on solo, 45 seconds of fade-out, and the feeling that surely there’s more where this came from.
Ex Hex plays the Black Cat on Oct. 5.