Whether calling out the transgressions of old boyfriends, or weaving D&D-style yarns about wizards, vampires, and magic boxes, Mary Timony has never shied away from her demons. Since the end of her much-missed ex-band Helium, her solo output has focused on bent allegories and fairy tale obsessions, and so much has been made of her medieval fixations that it feels trite to even bring them up. She likes vampires and elves, okay? Who doesn’t?
While ruminating on her Tolkienesqueries can be fascinating, I find the other side of her writing much more compelling. Mary calls it like she sees it, and she’s not afraid to call you out. Her first lyrics on Ex Hex — “I can’t stand you lying here on the floor / But then again I’ve asked you to move before / And you haven’t” — paint a photorealistic image of a woman fed up with your lazy ass. Mary isn’t the shy, skinny Boston girl you take her for. She’s tough. She’s walking out, and you deserve it. It’s this overarching bluntness that dominates Ex Hex, and that goes for the music as well.
Just as her lyrics often point to folkloric beasts and beauties, her music has always held a distinct baroque flavor. But make no mistake: Mary Timony is a rocker, and Ex Hex leaves no doubt of that. This is helped in no small amount by the addition of drummer Devin Ocampo’s aggro-stomp. His considerable drum talents and pedigree with Discord band the Medications lend Ex Hex an atmosphere that is decidedly D.C. sharp (also helped by cutting, percussive production by Fugazi drummer Brenden Canty). Though often buried on past releases, Timony’s guitar riffing skills are impressive, and here they’re brought to the fore. Timony’s angular noodling so closely mirrors that of Ash Bowie (ex-Polvo, ex-band mate, ex-boyfriend) it’s eerie, but that’s not a problem. Someone’s got to carry that torch, since Bowie himself seems to be hiding out in some sort of indie-rock witness protection program these days.
Ex Hex has a feeling of immediacy missing from much of Timony’s earlier, more languid efforts. From the staccato riff that opens “On the Floor”, through the spindly guitar line that propels the album’s closer, “Harmony”, the duo tears through the material like it’s under deadline. Save a few choice overdubs, and one lush piano/vibraphone track (“In the Grass”), this is Mary as guitar goddess, stripped to the bare necessities of Fender and Marshall. Close your eyes during “Hard Times Are Hard” and you can almost smell the musty practice space.
Through all of this, Timony proves that she still knows how to deliver volcanic dynamic shifts. “Friend to JC” recalls the dissonant pop-squall of Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth, and “Return to Pirates” is guaranteed to please the hordes hungry for a Helium reunion (or a Polvo reunion for that matter). In contrast, “Silence” wisely uses empty space to mirror lyrical content: “We speak in silence / Just like not speaking at all”. This serves as a nice contrast to the garage rawk propulsion of songs like “9 x 3”, which conjure the ghost of Timony’s first band, Autoclave.
When Timony’s new formula works, it works fabulously, breathing new life into her material. Ex Hex will undoubtedly bring back a few fans that went scurrying for the hills when Timony’s Mother Earth obsessions began to get the best of her. However, the unrelenting minimalism can become tiresome, and her considerable talent for adding new dimensions through multi-tracking is a little underused. It seems as if with Ex Hex she’s torn down the castle of sound she’d been dwelling in for years, to hop in a grungy old van and hit the rock clubs.
But the truth is, the heart of Timony’s sound hasn’t changed much since her first Helium releases. Her songs have always reflected a life lived by tempering an emotionally difficult, sometimes mundane reality with bursts of fantastic escapism. No matter how far you run, you can never escape yourself. Your demons will always find you, but if exorcised properly, they can yield some pretty effective results, or in Mary’s case, a damn good record.