Ex Hex defeat the curse of second album disappointment by bringing us more ripping power pop on It’s Real.
I’m not going to lie: I’m a few days late to the review party for Ex Hex’s new album It’s Real (out now on Merge). So, following my initial write-up, I read some other reviews from last week. Some have been critical of the Washington D.C. trio of Mary Timony (guitar, vocals), Betsy Wright (bass, vocals), and Laura Harris (drums) for following up their 2014 debut album, Rips, with more of the same retro rock on It’s Real. Other reviewers have revelled in having another album of tightly-wound, guitar-fuelled belters. I know what I want to hear when I put on an Ex Hex album. Riffs to die for? Check. Harmonies to kill for? Check. Lyrics to live by? You bet. So, I was obviously keen to hear if It’s Real would pack a bigger punk rock punch than its predecessor.
It should be noted that Ex Hex are a band with solid credentials – with band members having previously played in bands including The Aquarium, Fire Tapes, Helium, Autoclave and Wild Flag (which also included two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney). Despite this collective experience, they decided to adopt a more collaborative approach for album number two. Working with producer Jonah Takagi (who also produced Rips) to tighten up arrangements, it seems they sought to create a more immersive, layered aesthetic without straying from the unapologetic power pop that has become the backbone for their raucous live shows.
This experimentation in the studio has clearly paid off, with each track highlighting subtle new dimensions in their sound. ‘Rainbow Shiner’, described by Wright as “a victory song”, is a fuzz-filled, foot-stomping anthem that demands to be played in arenas to thousands headbanging. On the flip side, ‘Diamond Drive’ is insanely bouncy with soaring bass lines guaranteed to get you jumping along in a club. The change of pace at the halfway point of ‘Medley’ – from slow garage rock with swooning backing vocals to crunching riffs and back again – makes a pretty track perfect.
The questioning of the authenticity of relationships is key throughout (note the album title). On ‘Another Dimension’ – think a rocked-up version of Belinda Carlisle classic ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’ – the subject of the song is asked “Was it real or just an illusion? You and me in another dimension”. From the euphoric swagger of opener ‘Tough Enough’ (“There’s a storm in the distance, but now it’s moving on. Good times will be here before long”) to the swoon and sway of closer ‘Talk To Me’, Ex Hex address these dark times of doubt and the light on the horizon beyond them.
And now to return to the other reviews I mentioned. There seems to be a growing clamour for more music to be a commentary on the issues we are facing in society, particularly when it is music made by women. I can understand that need, based on the narratives dominating the news agenda across the world. Although It’s Real doesn’t really check that box, I would argue that the situations dealt with on this album – heartbreak, bad relationships, anxiety – are just as dominant in all our daily lives. Ex Hex haven’t changed their distinctive sound much, rather they’ve developed and distilled it. Their music now feels familiar – like an old friend that makes you feel both comforted and empowered – and more essential than ever in a world that’s constantly changing and stressful. The feelings on display throughout It’s Real are the real thing and, importantly, the music is also bloody good fun.
It’s powerful, it’s pointed, it’s playful and It’s Real is really the kind of album I need in my life right now.