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The prominence of a city’s music scene is usually more interesting to outsiders than participants. After all, it’s a measure of journalistic trends as much as of how many creative people might be bouncing off of one another in some locale or other. So Washingtonians shouldn’t take it too hard that the latest issue of snippy Athens, Ga., mag Chunklet includes the nation’s capital in a feature trashing the United States’ most overrated cities. “Is there really a scene here?” critic and ’zine co-founder Brian Teasley asks half-sarcastically. “These days, worrying about the DC barometer is like worrying about the Portuguese Military.”
As a scene, D.C. may now lead less than it follows. (Ian MacKaye’s new pleasant-rock duo, the Evens, comes to mind.) But even in the leanest of days, the city always boasts a handful of acts deserving of national attention. One such group is Supersystem, a nearly decade-old quartet that until recently was known by the wittier, more pop-cultural moniker El Guapo. The new name, a variation on the title of El Guapo’s 2001 album, Super/System, coincided with a switch from local indie Dischord to Chicago’s better-distributed Touch and Go, a label that has recently released hyped records by such New York bands as Yeah Yeah Yeahs, !!!, and TV on the Radio.
Both changes make sense. Regardless of the name, Supersystem is hardly the noisy, somewhat inert trio I saw in an Adams Morgan record store in the late ’90s. For one thing, the core duo of guitarist-vocalist Rafael Cohen and bassist-vocalist (and Washington City Paper contributor) Justin Moyer has since added a keyboardist (Rapture sessionist Peter Cafarella) and switched drummers (to Orthrelm’s Josh Blair). For another, the group has also evolved from sloppy free-jazzisms to the more polished sounds of disco-punk. Only the most boosterish of scenesters could miss the timing of Supersystem’s new interest in NYC-style postpunk revisionism. But hey, if you’re gonna ride the indie-dance trend, you might as well do it with a label known for something other than ascetic punk rock, right?
Not that the new Always Never Again comes across as a blatant cash-in. Granted, this debut is jarring even by comparison to the last El Guapo disc, 2002’s synth-poppy yet charmingly rough Fake French. But the Supersystem folks are as clever as they are ambitious, so Always is consistently stranger and more complex than anything coming from the DFA roster or Bloc Party or whatever else the white kids are dancing to these days. The infectious “Everybody Sings,” for example, is oozing with shake-your-groove-thing signifiers: synthesized hand claps, juicy keyboards, and come-hither femme vox. Scratch the surface, though, and the song is anything but lowest-common-denominator. The guitars betray the influence of both flamenco and metal, and the lyrics are way too heavy for Clubland: “Do you feel a connection/To people in the service?/…Do you feel a connection/To people making laws?” Answer? “No not at all.” (Even better: “Do you feel a connection/To people on the scene?” “From time to time.”)
WMD-themed follow-up “Defcon,” with its four-on-the-floor techno beat, is no less crunk. And its lyrics are no less sobering: “Defcon goes 1 thru 5,” the band sings en masse, “So we can know when to run and hide.” The apocalyptic visions just keep coming, too. Hard-funk cut “Tragedy” hints at the fragility of blue-state livin’ (“Will the city still be there/If you all close your eyes?”). Afropop homage “Six Cities” does more than hint, assuring us urban dwellers that annihilation is imminent (“There was once a city/Made of plastic/…The smoke from a fire there/Made everybody sick”). And “Click-Click,” a track that sounds like Fischerspooner after a Nigerian-import binge, predicts that whatever comes next can only be worse (“Gleaming terrible/Skin machines/…Having horrible/Having monstrous times”).
It’s anybody’s guess whether Always’ electro-clash of butt-shakin’ beats, not-so-feel-good subject matter, and foreign riffs will catch on with the new New Wave junkies. In many ways, the postpunk revival seems to be a symptom of conservative times: Forget Iraq, forget the economy—just set the controls for the heart of the groove. In that sense, Supersystem’s debut is a failure of the most excellent kind: It’s dance-punk that suggests that dancing, rather than being the primary objective, is the last resort. You want an ’80s analogue? Try the first few records by Killing Joke, a dance band so dystopian it asserted that hitting a club is basically just orgiastic participation in society’s collapse. And really, who cares whether the scene is falling apart when the whole damn world is?
Unlike the members of Supersystem, former Helium frontwoman Mary Timony never lost her taste for good ol’ nondanceable indie rock. That’s not to say, however, that the latest from the Washingtonian-Bostonian-Washingtonian is business as usual. Ex Hex is both Timony’s first album since she was pink-slipped by longtime label Matador and also her first for Berkeley, Calif.– based Lookout!, the pop-punk indie that’s brought us the likes of Green Day, Operation Ivy, and the Donnas.
Careerwise, it’s a lateral move at best. But aesthetically, it’s something of a boon. One of Timony’s former bosses at Matador claims that the taut Ex Hex is her best work this side of Helium’s 1994 debut, Pirate Prude, a favorite among Guyville postpunk types. And he’s right: Timony’s latest, which follows 2002’s erratic and fragile-sounding The Golden Dove and 2000’s whimsical and acid-folky Mountains, is every bit as muscular as any Helium disc out there. The change in sound makes sense, too, given the folks involved. For Ex Hex, Timony, a former member of Dischord act Autoclave, recruited two mainstays from said label—Medications’ Devin Ocampo and Fugazi’s Brendan Canty—and recorded at Inner Ear Studios, Dischord’s in-house studio in all but name and location.
That both of Timony’s creative accomplices are exceptional drummers may also help to explain the percussive toughness of the guitar work. Regardless of whether she’s riffing on elbow-chord punk (opening track “On the Floor”), one-note-at-a-time garage (“9 5 3”), or finger-twisting prog (closer “Backwards/Forwards”), Timony is booming and confident like never before. There’s little space for the hesitant, intentionally obtuse playing that has often marred her solo work. Here, even the tracks that begin most tentatively—“Return to Pirates,” for example—can explode into propulsive, no-time-for-noodling pop.
Yet for all of the in-your-face six-stringing and anthemic hooks, there’s also a real sense of modesty about this record. For most of Ex Hex, producer Canty gives Timony what you might call the Sleater-Kinney treatment, leaving listeners alone with guitar, drums, and the singer’s rebel-cherubic voice—though the last is positioned so low in the mix it’s sometimes overpowered by the other instruments. Thus you might need the lyric sheet to suss out the most heavenly line from “Return to Pirates”: “I want to be in the garden of love/Led by a lamb and a little white dove.” Or the most devilish one from “Hard Times Are Hard”: “It’s people like you/With a serpent’s tongue/That poison everyone/An eye for an eye/A tooth for a tooth/Goodbye for a goodbye.”
But even if you miss a lyric or two, the album’s various tensions are amply evident. Timony’s best music has always been all about dichotomy; that much you can gather from such yin/yang critical descriptions as “heaven-and-hell” and “Sylvia Plath in Doc Martens.” In this sense, Ex Hex might be her most successful record yet: It sounds big but feels small, and its thunk-thud ugliness again and again twists itself into la-la-la beauty. Yeah, the album ain’t Repeater or Imperial f.f.r.r. or Bikini Kill or Copacetic. It is, however, a success on its own terms—and a disc that our “overrated” hometown should be proud to call its own. CP