Music this dumb and square isn’t supposed to be this smart and cool. A veteran of local acts like Child Ballads and Chain and the Gang, Betsy Wright is best known these days as the rock-kicking bassist of Ex Hex, Mary Timony’s power-pop power trio that released its debut in 2014. We’ll have to keep waiting for new Ex Hex music, but in the meantime, Wright has her own vehicle for summoning kind spirits from the used-record bin. Where Ex Hex nodded to perennially hip forebears like Television and Tommy James, Bat Fangs, Wright’s duo with drummer Laura King (of Flesh Wounds), has a hand on the late-’70s/early-’80s FM dial. In the best possible way, it’s the Cheap Trick to Ex Hex’s Big Star.
“Rock the Reaper” beckons someone to “be my little runaway,” a choice of noun that can’t be an accident, nor could be the line “if you hang on the telephone,” a reference to a beloved Nerves song that Blondie covered in 1978. Bat Fangs is all about the spaces between garage rock and arena rock—the music blasted by the kids who smoked in the high school parking lot, but also the music that bellowed from the roller-rink P.A. Come to think of it, the title “Rock the Reaper” feels right, too, if you take it as a command and a wink: If you grew up air-guitaring to Blue Öyster Cult and kept the right priorities, you might come up with an album set in the same teenage wasteland as this one.
Not that you’d come up with hooks this canny or riffs this hard. Opener “Turn It Up” takes a familiar rock trope—to increase the volume—and makes it a kiss-off to a disposable, distracted lover: “Come on, turn it up/ I don’t care if you stay.” “Bad Astrology” is what happens when punk-rock kids get their hands on classic Sabbath or early Maiden. “Boy of Summer” sounds like its title was spit out by a neural network trained on highway-freedom anthems, but its pastiche of the form is so precise—and its subversion of the theme so gratifying, dismissing rather than reifying the titular boy—that it gets passing marks. “Wolfbite” could be Heavy Metal Parking Lot: The Song, but it summons up older, richer forces, lending some Blue Cheer oomph to its Judas Priest drive.
So yes, this is a throwback record, but Bat Fangs’ distillation of what made this kind of dirtbag rock so appealing—and its eschewing of the misogyny, pomposity, and thematic predictability that could make it grating—works because of the band’s talent for tight songcraft, the album’s spacious but stripped-down production, and the gusto (Wright’s Joan Jett deadpan, King’s galloping percussion) the duo brings to the mix. And retro shamanism isn’t Bat Fangs’ only trick, anyway. “Mercury,” a simultaneously wiry and hazy slow burn, would be great in any radio era. “If you want to be alone, sleeping in another zone,” Wright opens, suggesting that while her band mostly wants to take us to some old, cherished places, it doesn’t mind exploring some new astral planes, too.