X Ex Hex
So, with that in mind, let me just admit something right up front, before I begin discussing the album that has caught my attention today: I’ve never heard the first two solo albums by Mary Timony. Sure, I was a fan of Helium (and Autoclave, for that matter) when they were around; though I don’t play their records very often anymore, I still know the choruses of "XXX" and "Baby Vampire Made Me" by heart, and get them stuck in my head at times. I had no real reason not to pick up Mary Timony’s earlier albums when they came out, but I like a lot of different kinds of music, and I’m sure my attention was just focused elsewhere when they were new and people were talking about them. In fact, the same thing might have happened with her new album, "Ex Hex," but for the fact that I read a review of it, in Rolling Stone of all places, that piqued my interest. I downloaded it a few days ago, and it has quietly grown on me since then, until earlier tonight I found myself looking up from what I was reading and saying, "Damn, this is a really good record!"
While Helium bassist Ash Bowie’s main band, Polvo, had a sound like a wire pulled too tightly and in danger of snapping at the slightest pressure, Helium’s sound in their early days had been a grittier, more primitive thing, constructed around drones and thumps that always left song structures feeling hollow, like an instrument had been left out of the mix. Melody was always there, even on their earliest records, but it was skewed, off-kilter. There was also an air of menace to Helium’s music, as if things could turn hostile and go off the rails at any second. Things never did, though, and by the time of their final album, "Magic City," Helium had a fuller sound, and the catchy pop riffs that had always played some role in their songwriting had become more prominent. "Ex Hex" isn’t all that far from what Helium was doing right before they broke up; if anything, it carries on from the point where "Magic City" left off. The menace has been eclipsed almost completely by the more melodic tendencies of the music, and even though Timony recorded this album with just a drummer for a backing band, the music sounds fuller than anything Helium ever recorded. However, this isn’t a mellow pop record by any stretch of the imagination. Although keyboards and even the occasional vibraphone is introduced into the mix in order to liven things up, Timony’s guitar is always the loudest instrument, driving the songs aggressively forward with her powerful riffing.
The thing that really makes "Ex Hex" stand out, though, is the off-kilter touches that still manage to find their way into the music. Even with a guitar that’s perfectly in tune, Mary Timony will always find a way to wring some completely strange sound out of it, playing notes that bend and twist and slip through the cracks of musical notation. However, since her goal on this album appears to be removing anything extraneous and just rocking, you’d think that this tendency of hers would trip her up. Strangely, it has the opposite effect–songs that would be decent but no better are elevated to a whole new level by Timony’s unique guitar stylings. You can’t help but notice these idiosyncrasies–on "Friend To JC", for example, she disrupts what might be the most melodic chorus the album has to offer by playing the wrong chords. There’s no way it’s a mistake–the chords are the same on every repetition of the chorus. And it isn’t like she’s playing a G when she should be playing a D or something of that nature; it sounds like she places one finger one fret to the left or right of where it was supposed to be on the first chord of the chorus, and then repeats the mistake on every other chord, as if she’s trying to make up for a mistake by making it part of the actual song. For some reason, it totally works. I can’t help but think that I wouldn’t like the song as much without it. I’m reminded of a story I once heard about Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn: people thought he was inept as a guitarist, but he actually would practice scales for hours every day. The thing that fooled so many listeners was that he would write all of his guitar solos in such a way that instead of being in key with the main riffs of the song, they were a half-step too high or too low. The solos would come out sounding like mistakes; sick, wrong... and yet somehow perfect. Perhaps Mary Timony has heard this story too, or perhaps it’s just a technique she also picked up from years of practice. Regardless, it’s a lesson that she understands and puts to good use here. Nothing else on the album is quite as weird as the chorus of "Friend of JC", but bent notes and unexpected pauses appear frequently. They’re always mixed right into the infectious melodies, catching your full attention every time some catchy riff threatens to lull you into a state of hypnotic bliss. "W.O.W." is structured around a lurching verse that pauses for a rest right in the middle of every line, only to plow forward a second before you’re ready for it to. Things get onto a more even keel in the chorus, which is half clean arpeggios and half dramatically bent sustained notes, but at least has a steady beat. "Return to Pirates" goes back to one of Timony’s main lyrical obsessions from the Helium days, and highlights her vocal range on an ascending chorus that might be the album’s most crowd-pleasing moment–and not just because it’s about pirates, either.
By kicking up both the melodic and the off-kilter extremes of her songwriting style, Timony has achieved a balance unprecedented in her earlier work. The weirdness that muffled some of the more melodic tendencies of earlier Helium integrates more smoothly into the overall sound of "Ex Hex", rather than dissipating as it tended to on "Magic City," and by doing so, it helps keep the rock riffs from blurring into each other. "Ex Hex" may very well be the most fully realized Mary Timony-related project I’ve ever heard. Then again, since I haven’t heard everything she’s done, I am probably treading on thin ice, rhetorically speaking, and will now quit while I’m ahead.