After being unceremoniously dumped by Matador, her record label of more than a decade, indie-rock pixie, prog-rock priestess and punk feminist Mary Timony got hooked up with a new band, producer and record deal. The infusion of new blood, particularly the addition of bandmate and collaborator Devin Ocampo, brings new vigor to her third solo album, Ex Hex, even as it finds her largely returning to her punk and lo-fi roots.
To the relief of fans who favored Timony’s work when she fronted Helium, Ex Hex largely draws off that band’s earlier punk and indie sensibilities, fueled by Ocampo’s powerful, thumping drum beats and forceful bass playing. The sound, as you might expect from a duo, is starker, and there’s an aggression that resembles Helium’s acclaimed Dirt of Luck full-play (1995) and Pirate Prude EP (1994). The tempos are among the fastest of Timony’s career.
“On the Floor,” “Return to Pirates,” “Hard Times Are Hard” and “9×3” stand out as the better examples of Timony’s return to a more basic and hard-playing style. The strongest cut on the forty-six-minute album, “9×3,” opens with a playful call and return between guitar and drums before launching into a blistering, punk-inspired bass line. The chorus features strong hooks and an infectious melody that adds an element of pop rock.
Timony, whose work over the years increasingly dabbled with the more elaborate and symphonic elements of progressive rock, still finds time to veer into long series of meandering, mostly minor-key guitar and keyboard scales that are more classical in their approach. Even as they rock out, the songs adhere to Timony’s highly structured songwriting and disciplined playing.
Ex Hex also retains much of the ethereal mood found in so much of Timony’s work. “In the Grass” and “Silence” are infused with the eerie, dreamy magic that came to characterize songs found on Helium’s No Guitars EP (1997) and Timony’s The Golden Dove (2002). Lyrically, Timony continues to showcase her blend of fantasy story-telling, deeply personal daydream thoughts and biting criticism, often in a single song. “‘I can not love you more,’ said the doctor to the whore, ‘I want to be in the garden of love, led by a lamb and a little white dove,'” she sings on “Return to Pirates.”
Besides teaming with Ocampo for Ex Hex and a summer tour, Timony sought production help from Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty. With a new label and fresh band and producer, you might have expected Timony to do something altogether different. She’s ditched the medieval allusions to dragons and fairies and most of the courtly, classical sound that marked so much of the later Helium material and her early solo material. But what results in many ways sounds like a rehash of her previous work. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering the strength of her earlier work. And this time around, Timony draws from a richer palette and a fresh perspective. She may not have learned any new tricks, but Ex Hex is proof that Timony still has imagination and chops.