I don’t remember when or why I decided to learn everything about rock and roll. It’d be a nice sentimental story if there was an identifiable eureka moment, but there probably wasn’t. I definitely remember thinking I used to play air guitar to Clash records in the garage, but all memory gets apocryphal if you dig back more than a few months. It probably happened once and my subconscious blew it up into a major plot point. For all I know, my commitment to rock and roll started with a musical montage in a cartoon, or a forgotten fast food commercial, or the bumper music to some overheard talk radio show; ephemera and osmosis.
It’s almost not the pastime that interests me anymore, really, it’s the trajectory of the pastime. It ebbs and flows without my input. I started with the whole curriculum. Total escape. A ready-made rabbit hole. If I liked a band at 17, then by 18 I also had a couple songs by the band’s drug dealers. If I loved a band at 18, then by 19 I had collected most of their extent bootlegs and insisted that the best versions of their songs were the ones that sounded the most horrible. I knew the name of every bygone punk club in L.A. before I knew what freeways it had.
Then, overnight, there was a dissociative fugue. The whole enjoyment mechanism broke down. I studied rock and roll so much that I forgot what it was. I could only listen to outsider music and the deliberately antisocial. Nothing was more boring than a well-constructed rock song. Everything had to be wrong or I didn’t care. The only good Tom Waits song was “Kommienezuspadt.” I knew who Jandek was. I’d detune my guitar and record nonsense on it for two hours and play the result backwards. And I enjoyed not enjoying it.
Finally it came back with normalcy-as-kitsch. I got obsessed with Bruce Springsteen and when people pressed me on the subject I’d say “oh, you mean the Last Great American Songwriter?” until I wasn’t sure if I was joking.
Then that stopped being funny, and it’s been low tide for years. But every once in awhile something pulls me right back to year one and reminds me of my whole embarrassing belief in rock music. It’s never an event album or anything particularly buzzworthy. It’s never anything with a lot of novelty or narrative momentum. Usually it’s a song I already liked and forgot about.
That’s why Rips by Ex Hex is the best rock album I’ve heard in years. It’s sounds like 35 minutes of songs I already liked and forgot about. That’s all it is. It makes no big statements. It doesn’t deconstruct or intellectualize what it is; it’s not ashamed of the fact that it’s a straightforward, hooky guitar album when nothing could be less en vogue or harder to discuss. There’s no big press kit story behind it.
It’s just twelve songs by Mary Timony, Betsy Wright, and Laura Harris. Guitar, bass, drum. The production is glammy and the guitar tone is big and bright. There’s some Ramones in there, some New York Dolls, some Blondie – the influences are all in plain sight and worn with confidence. This is a band that could, at any second, cover “Surrender” without hiding behind any ironic conceit for doing so.
The lyrics are a collage of rock archetypes. They’re all about staying out all night, passing out at parties, wanting to dance and not wanting to lose; being too cool. Like everything on the album, they sound more found than written. And they’re so lean that lines like “when you count on nothing, nothing falls apart” take on a surprising weight.
The highest praise I can give Rips is that it sounds like the work of a band that used to play double bills with The Nerves. One of those local bands that never recorded anything and slipped off into obscurity and if you mention them to that old producer you met at a Roger McGuinn concert, you’ll just get a wistful half-smile and a long sigh about why that damn album didn’t happen, followed by a list of A&R men who should be in jail.
But there are always five hundred thousand bands who want to be Ramones and Blondie at the same time, and they’re always boring. You listen to them and they don’t make you suddenly interested in rock and roll again. There’s no weight to those. Their music is light as air and dissipates like an aural mist. If I recommended a band with the exact same philosophy as Ex Hex and proceeded to tell you The Fratellis were taking them on tour, you’d have cause to throw bricks at my window. Historically, almost mathematically, this album shouldn’t work as well as it does. But there’s a reason I’ve been listening to it routinely for 8 months instead of forgetting what it was called the day after I heard it.
The answer, I think, lies in editing. You aren’t required to spend as long on the other side of rock and roll as I have to enjoy this album, but you almost certainly are to make it. It takes a lot of training and acquired intuition to know exactly where and how often to deploy an “ooh-ooh-ooh” or a “come on, baby” without sounding ridiculous. And it takes a lot of self-editing and restraint to get a referential album like this, a “what records did we like growing up?” project like this, down to 35 minutes. This album is so keenly edited that it sounds effortless, and that takes surgical precision. It’s brutally difficult to make your point and get the hell out.
The payoff for all that restraint is a band that sounds how you imagine a hometown band made good should sound; the album you should have taken when you were discreetly stealing from your cousin’s record collection; the soundtrack you should have had in high school the first time you went driving too fast. But it’s better than that. It’s so good, and good without pretention, it can do impossible things, like make you dig out a Ramones album and actually hear it for once. And it’s the best album of Mary Timony’s career. If Ex Hex is playing in your town, go see them.