Whoever Mary Timony’s singing to on It’s Real, Ex Hex’s sophomore follow up to 2014’s Rips, they’ve taken her on one dizzying rollercoaster ride. From start to end, It’s Real warps around “you,” more than likely the same person all the way through the record’s track list; Timony sings the same yearning for “you” on the opening song, “Tough Enough,” and on “Good Times,” “Want It to Be True,” all the way to “Talk to Me,” where Timony appeals to her nameless audience to grant her the simple courtesy of a conversation.
“If you shut me down, will all be lost in space and time? / I’ll wade into your stormy sea,” she croons, vulnerable but possessed of steely dignity. It takes immense strength of spirit to guide a boat over rough waters, and It’s Real charts a perilous course: The second track, “Rainbow Shiner,” soberly rings with implied violence, a document of triumph through “the black and blue.” If anyone wishes to make the case that Timony intends to address more than one subject, “Rainbow Shiner” is a good place to start; this song feels aimed at someone she’s breaking away from rather than someone she’s trying to get closer to. But maybe It’s Real, in keeping with its title, means to acknowledge complications of the heart. Maybe the one Timony got all the black and blue from is the same one she ran from shadows with in “Cosmic Cave.”
Following It’s Real’s unifying thread is a complex task. The music, granted, isn’t as complex, in the sense that the music itself requires no moralizing for engagement: It’s great, unqualified awesomeness soaked in ‘80s and ‘90s rock ‘n roll, echoing anyone and everyone from Joan Jett to Sleater-Kinney to Scorpions and even to Tsunami Bomb. But here rests the line of delineation. Folks who don’t appreciate an aesthetic planted firmly in the eras of grunge and Camaro rock likely won’t change their tune on hearing It’s Real’s stomping power-pop stylings (assuming they’re generous enough to give it a shot in the first place). People who read that description as a promise of Good Times, on the other hand, will embrace It’s Real as Ex Hex’s return to the modern day rock ecosystem.
There’s a gentle hand needed to make music with as much edge as Ex Hex’s sound so tender through the crackle and buzz of distortion pedals and the confident strut-worthy boom of Laura Harris’ drums. In some cases, the music actually sounds reckless: “This illusion of love is coming to ya,” sings Timony on “Diamond Drive. “The dots are moving on, and the lines are keeping time.” Calling back to “You Fell Apart” from Rips, Timony starts pointing out the “creeps” catching up to her. She doesn’t want the driver to crash, but boy, she wants to get the hell away from the creeps as they swing around on chandeliers. Between the creeps and a crash, the latter sounds preferable. If you’re going to wreck a car, might as well wreck it with the volume cranked up.
But the key word in “Diamond Drive” is “illusion.” It’s used on a recurring basis over the course of It’s Real, not only in “Diamond Drive” but “Another Dimension” and “Cosmic Cave.” Was the love between Timony and her listener real? Did she just imagine the whole relationship? “We hung our minds / on an illusion of our love,” she muses on “Cosmic Cave.” If it was an illusion, it’s a remarkably substantial one. She can’t forget the experience she had with this person, however good or bad they might have been. She went so far as to craft an album about those experiences, after all.
Timony’s realistic. She knows that “the universe is cruel / and nature will make you a fool,” one lesson of many taught as It’s Real closes out with “Talk to Me.” And she knows, too, that she’s liable to lose her damn mind waiting for her partner to come around. In the meantime, she, Harris, and Betsy Wright are going to rock the fuck out, and us with them.
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.