Since the early ’90s, Mary Timony of Ex Hex (formerly of Wild Flag, Helium, and the underrated Autoclave) has remained an under-the-radar indie-feminist icon. Timony’s early work with Helium told a complicated, provocative story that might now seem at odds with her friendly, approachable everyday demeanor (the Washington Post once dubbed her “the rock idol next door”). Those were the nascent riot-grrrl days, and her lyrics were notable for their characters, contradictions, and symbolism, often about gender and women’s sexuality. Imagery like “black-angel centerfolds,” and a “fallen Maraschino cherry” make up the lo-fi songs’ beating centers.
As a college student with a newfound passion for feminism and riot grrrl, Helium’s music spoke to me for everything it didn’t say as much as what it did. Timony’s lyrics felt less confessional and graphic than her contemporaries in bands like Bikini Kill and later on, Sleater-Kinney, but they were equally powerful—quieter, more toned down, but still subversive. Her music was, in effect, just angry enough, and her vocal delivery was flatter, making the deeper messages of her songs tiptoe up to you instead of bashing you over the head. I appreciated that subtlety—I was angry too, but not fully in touch with it yet, and Timony’s music helped me navigate some of those less-than-comfortable feelings on my own terms.
As her sound began to grow grander and more lush, lyrically Timony dove into less rebellious, character-driven terrain, instead exploring themes—with both Helium and, later, her own solo work—of space, myths, and nature; fairy-unicorn land, if you will: “Bad luck and worse weather, hyacinth and heather . . . I’m moving upwards through the atmosphere/ the devil cries without a tear,” she sings in ‘Devil’s Tear’ off 1997’s “The Magic City.” She’s also struggled with depression, a topic that appeared frequently on her solo records: 2000’s “Mountains” and 2002’s “The Golden Dove.”
Now teaching guitar back in her hometown of Washington, D.C. after years in Boston, Timony is able to focus on her new band, Ex Hex, which also features Laura Harris on drums, and Betsy Wright on bass. The band sounds remarkably less ornate than her earlier musical incarnations. Their new record, “Rips,” is gritty, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll—raw, driving, and catchily addictive. Some reviewers have likened it to classic punk records by bands such as The Ramones, and sure enough it feels like a refreshingly crisp, straightforward rock album: Most songs don’t run longer than three minutes, and many of them boast sing-along choruses and the occasional girl-group-style backing vocal.
“It’s supposed to be a good-times record,” she tells me over the phone, and hopes listeners will feel compelled to play it at a party or load it on a jukebox. Timony’s primary goal for the record was to strip down a familiar sound and come as close as possible to the raw feel of a band playing live. Which wasn’t easy, as sparseness and simplification don’t come naturally for her. “A lot of effort goes into that,” she says. “It’s really easy for me to start adding a ton of stuff, and I tried to not do that [this time] at all. In the past I’ve gotten really into arranging instruments and putting a lot of overdubs on a record, but this time it was almost like we were arranging with the actual frequencies of the guitar solos.”
Timony recalls listening to a variety of guitar-based rock while the band worked on the record: The dB’s, Tom Petty, the MC5, Dwight Twilley, and the Nerves. But she also admits that she was re-inspired by the pop music she loved as a kid: “I was trying to imitate songs that would have fit in with the stuff I was hearing on the radio when I was 12.” The band members were on the same page and she says they “feel more like a gang than any other band I’ve played in. We’re having a blast.” They came together when Timony sought out Laura Harris after admiring her work in bands like The Aquarium. “[Laura] happened to be moving back [to D.C.] from Virginia, so we hung out and . . . hit it off,” she remembers.
Lyrically, “Rips” contains almost no fantastical-faerie stuff to speak of—which, as a longtime Timony fan, struck me as a pretty big deal. She downplays the album’s lyrical stylings as well, claiming—like many musicians—she puts more weight on the music than the words: “Sometimes I forget what I even wrote the songs about. But I made a conscious effort [on “Rips”] to try to be really direct and stay away from metaphors.” That forthrightness shows, sometimes toying with familiar lyrics tropes with refrains like, “I tried so hard not to forget/ I got no regrets” (‘You Fell Apart’) and “I don’t wanna lose your love . . . If you’re gonna start messing around, hurry up, don’t let me down” (‘Don’t Wanna Lose’). Backed by the powerful trio, though, these come off more like universal truths than rock clichés.
She does point out, though, that “Rips”’ last few songs cover more of her old-school ground, with a “more dreamy and spiritual” vibe and a few songs focus on “time” and “how short life is, those kinds of things.” Of course, whispers of her trademark darkness nudge though, and one of the bigger personal motifs that played into writing the record, she says, was feeling like an underdog. In fact, the album’s primary theme, as far as she’s concerned? “Stop fucking with me,” she says with a laugh.
Ex Hex plays the Ottobar on Nov. 5 with Speedy Ortiz, Wing Dam, and Sherman Whips.