More Than Meets The Ear
Ex Hex’s second album, It’s Real, is a solid follow-up to their 2014 debut Rips. Fronted by Mary Timony of Helium and Autoclave, Ex Hex is an all-female indie rock trio, comprised of Timony, bassist Betsy Wright and drummer Laura Harris.
On its face, It’s Real is a good album, a collection of fun, catchy tunes that people can’t help tapping their foot along to. But beneath the surface, Ex Hex stands apart from the generic indie trio. The longer an Ex Hex song plays for, the more apparent it becomes. It’s Real often relies too heavily on the same tricks and fails to completely deliver on their potential, but there’s a lot to like here.
What makes Ex Hex engaging is that they’re like a musical Rorschach Test; their songs are simple but are comprised of such a varied array of rock influences that their core sound can change depending on the listener’s perception. “Tough Enough” encompasses all the staples of modern indie: crunchy guitar chords, a simple driving beat and melodic vocals. It wouldn’t be a stretch to compare Ex Hex to Best Coast. But the punchy, snappy tone of the guitar is evocative of a different era. By isolating the chord progression, people might mistake it for Keith Richards on a Rolling Stones record. As the song progresses and the chorus kicks in, Timony’s echoing vocals combined with the chugging, classic rock-influenced guitar suddenly give the song a distinctly ’80s twist in the vain of Scorpions. What makes the band’s sound so unique is that all of these elements exist concurrently, and one could hear any or all of these at any given moment.
“Rainbow Shiner” maintains the band’s classic rock influences with a Zeppelin-style chord progression and bluesy lead guitar riff that Jimmy Page would surely approve of. It transitions well between energetic choruses and dialed back verses, where the song takes on that ’80s flair. Somehow, it sits comfortably between “Whole Lotta Love” and “Cherry Bomb.”
The variety of rock influences in Ex Hex’s sound comes to define the album and really shines through elsewhere in “No Reflection” and “Another Dimension.” The latter stands out with a punky Joan Jett attitude and fun vocal hook: “You and me in another dimension.”
As the album progresses, Ex Hex expands further and explores the psychedelic, both thematically (“Another Dimension,” “Cosmic Cave” and “Radiate”) and musically (“No Reflection,” “Medley.”) The use of noise in “Medley” and modulated vocals in “No Reflection” stand out as interesting experimental tactics that engage the listener in a different way.
Where It’s Real falls short is that it often relies on the same old tricks. Nearly every verse section on the album is the same: a simple 4/4 snare-based beat and choppy power chords played once or twice per measure. Admittedly this is a good sound for Ex Hex as it allows their dynamic influences to shine through, so it’s hard to fault them for relying on what works. But it eventually becomes a bit tired and repetitive, especially when occasional moments like the drumbeat in “Another Dimension” show that the group is capable of reaching the next level musically.
The same can be said for Timony’s lead guitar work, which is occasionally brilliant (“Tough Enough,” “Rainbow Shiner,” “No Reflection”) but often becomes bogged down by an over-reliance on bends and blues licks (“Good Times,” “Cosmic Cave”). It mostly works, but it does feel somewhat uninspired at times.
It’s Real is an album every rock fan should check out. There’s something here for the classic rock homers, the ’80s hair metal fans, the garage rock hipsters and the indie aficionados. Some songs feel a bit reliant on tactics used in others, but It’s Real is a mostly great indie rock album, and it showcases the potential of Ex Hex as rising stars in the indie scene. With some adjustments, their third record could be even better.