Sometimes it’s a cop-out to compare a record’s sound to its title, but with the Washington, D.C.-based power trio Ex Hex’s debut, it just works. Ex Hex rip on Ex Hex’s Rips. Betsy Wright, Mary Timony and Laura Harris whittle down the idea of rock ‘n’ roll to a fine point, with guitars, drums and attitude swirled into a whirlwind half-hour of crunchy riffs, fluid solos and whoa-oh choruses.
Ex Hex’s minor indie-celeb status is derived largely from Timony. Her last project, Wild Flag, was a collaboration with the Minders’ Rebecca Cole and Sleater-Kinney‘s Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, and her work with Helium, Autoclave and under her own name, has been a staple of college radio for over two decades; her often-complex, winding guitar work redefines what “chops” actually consist of. She’s also a guitar teacher in D.C., where she’s lived since 2004; last year, a Washington Post profile called her “the rock idol next door.”
But Ex Hex’s potency comes from their existence as a unit. Riffs are delivered in unison; Harris takes over lead vocals from the throatier Timony on “How You Got That Girl” and “Radio On”; only one song passes the 3:20 mark. The rush provided by Rips is similar to the one offered by a classic-rock station on a particularly hot streak — these are not necessarily songs that are familiar on their faces, but they are built to feel that way. There are endless opportunities not just for air-guitaring and -drumming, but singing along after half a listen thanks to the backing vocals.
Rips does have moments where it baldly borrows from its classic-rock forebears, although it shrewdly improves on them by snipping out the genre’s worst excesses — the wanky tendencies, the overlong solos, the brooding by dudes that verges on whining. “How You Got That Girl” zips along like an edited-for-clarity “Hold On Loosely“; the guitar solo on “Hot And Cold” sounds like an inverted take on the “My Sharona” break; “Waste Your Time” pulses along in a way that recalls “Just What I Needed.” Ex Hex update the animating ideas behind great rock songs — the swagger, the licks, the just-cool-enough sexiness — for 2014.
It’s tempting to look at why Rips is being released now. The guitar-rock landscape has seemed a bit moribund over the last couple of years, making a record as simple and refreshing as Rips stand out even more. Is rock “back”? (Probably not.) Will Ex Hex’s reclaiming of the power-trio idea as a domain where women can exist stop music editors from treating ladies who happen to play music like animals worthy of extended zoologic observation? (Ha.) Has Timony’s time teaching guitar made her reconsider the value of the basics? (Hm!) But all that brainiac stuff sort of misses the point of what makes Ex Hex great; sometimes, a listener just needs the basics — meat, potatoes and staggering confidence — in her musical diet. And on that level, Ex Hex not only Rips; it rules.