Ex-Hex are the sound of pop and rock’s rich electric guitar wielding past, full of emotive memories, combined with something new. I’m not actually sure what that ‘something’ is, but Ex-Hex do not sound like an uninspired retread of former glories. Their strong resemblance to the sound of early to mid ’70s glam and punk make it easy to imagine them on the stage at CBGBs, but their Runaways-esque sound and image is backed up by their own identity, at the same time assured, deft, merrily irreverent and genuinely fun. All the tunes have been lovingly crafted within an inch of their lives, which also means any live diversions improve rather than destroy their brilliant punk-pop racket. Also, despite their more mature age, Ex-Hex can make you feel like a teenager again, and in this context, that’s a marvellous thing (even the songs concern themselves with such teen girl tribulations as bad boyfriends, nights out and getting even).
In the scruffy bowels of the Soup Kitchen bar in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, Ex-Hex continue the UK leg of their current tour. It’s the kind of venue their infectious noise suits down to the ground. After the polite but competent indie pop of support band Princess (who caused some very amusing audience communication confusion: “What’s that last one called?”…”What’s your name?”…”What’s my name?”…”No, that’s the name of the track”). I liked them, but I can’t say too much more as I only saw the end of their set. Following Princess, there’s a bit of wait for Ex-Hex to take to the stage. Despite Timony graciously mentioning that so many bands have come from Manchester, I’m not sure this will go down as their personal favourite venue in the tour. I’ve heard they love them up in Glasgow, and to be fair, this crowd are a bit subdued on a Thursday night (the weekend hasn’t really started yet). Actually, while we’re on the subject of geography, the band have got me re-thinking what I thought I knew about the DC music scene, which admittedly wasn’t much. On their own merit Ex-Hex are a fairly tight and capable outfit, with a classic sound, notable stage presence and an obvious musical talent.
Lead vocalist and guitarist Mary Timony is a veteran of previous bands such as Helium and the more recent White Flag, and with new recruits Betsy Wright (bass) and Laura Harris (drums) has formed a trio that know the power of a good riff and a decent chorus. Songs like “Don’t Wanna Lose”, “Waterfall” and “The Beast” echo with the spirit of a glam disco circa 1973 (and a cover of The Sweet’s “Fox on the run” just enhances this), but these ladies are not slaves to the history book, with something fresh and cheerfully brash being wrung from these well established instruments, which feature less and less on our current top ten singles, unless from worthy but dull behemoths like Coldplay. But with Ex-Hex the fun is back in rock n’ roll and they might well be my favourite new band. This is classic garage pop rock that occasionally knows how to rock hard without losing its tune, and while this might have originally been Timony’s baby, Wright certainly cuts a captivating figure, full of sass and confidence. But let’s be clear, Ex-Hex really come across as a trio democracy, all for one and one for all.
A guitar versus bass face-off adds to the excitement with Timony and Wright like pigs in muck. They don’t just do this for a living; they love the bones of it. To make such a rock n’ roll cliché look fresh and riveting is a secret they’d best keep. Whatever it is, they keep you glued, even when in moments of raucous improvisation to their chord driven punk sound. The last gasps of the ’90s Riot Grrrl movement? Maybe, but most definitely an exciting all girl band. Out dated labels aren’t needed here.
The diverse crowd (old metal fans packed in with indie kids and hipsters and the odd folky looking stray) offered a lot of wolf whistles and loud applause in response to the music, and nobody looked unimpressed. Sure, we’d heard it done a million times before, but with a band like Ex-Hex taking a few notes from that aforementioned history book of rock riffs, I feel sure that they’ll be substantially adding to that book themselves soon. Plus I left the gig with a big smile on my face and a new record under my arm, and you can’t argue with that sort of evidence.
(As a postscript I’d like to say a big ‘thank you’ to the really nice merchandising girl, who had put a new copy of ‘Rips’ to one side for me. She even asked if I had enough time to catch my train. I never know if Americans have an idea of distance and time on our island nation, but if you’re reading this, it was only a twelve minute sprint, and yes, I made it!)
Ex-Hex’s debut album ‘Rips’ is out now on Merge records.
Links below to some great Youtube clips from Stepunker: