By Katherine Flynn of Consequence of Sound. Photos by Chris Chen.
I’m not a woman who can play guitar, but despite this fact, there’s still something exceptionally empowering about being in the presence of one who can. And Mary Timony is one of the best: From stints in Autoclave and Helium in the ‘90s to more recent work with Carrie Brownstein and co. in girl rock super group Wild Flag, Timony has spent most of her adult life honing her shredding chops. They’re on full display on Rips, her first full-length with new band Ex Hex. The prospect of Timony at center stage, preceded by Boston’s female-fronted Speedy Ortiz, was just too good to pass up. The two groups kicked off a string of tour dates at the Black Cat on Sunday, invigorating a District crowd undoubtedly wracked with dread for the grind of the upcoming workweek. I stood a little too close to the speakers from the get-go, needing the shrieking guitar notes to obliterate my thoughts and scald my eardrums clean.
A spotlight shone directly on Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis as she and her three male band mates took the stage, catching the glints of light in her glittery gold eye shadow and the shadows beneath the dramatic jutting curves of her cheekbones. In the spirit of not contributing to the objectification of female artists, that’s all I’ll say about her appearance, despite a fervent, whispered conference with my roommate during their initial sound check about the size of my girl-crush on her. (Hint: It’s big.) Equally powerful is her stage presence and the sheer sonic size of the notes released from her guitar. Material from last year’s Major Arcana took the forefront – from the scorching “Tiger Tank,” which finds Dupuis making some unflattering personal confessions in a frank songwriting style that, over time, can become addictive; to the anthem-like “Plough,” whose unforgettable refrain centers on a man who evidently picked a virgin over Dupuis. The slower, more introspective material from Major Arcana was notably absent, like “No Below,” a vulnerable, minimalist track that finds Dupuis’ voice rising above the band’s characteristically overpowering guitars.
Speedy Ortiz did their due diligence to the material on Major Arcana, but seemed most invigorated at the prospect of showcasing new songs like “American Horror,” a track from last winter’s Real Hair EP that takes everything good from the band’s debut – swift, crunching guitars, Dupuis’ deceptively sweet vocals – and improves upon them, distilling a number of disparate elements into what might be the band’s slickest piece of music yet. Despite all four members fighting illness (bassist Darl Ferm frequently employed a mid-torso twist to blow his nose away from the audience) and a sound mix that frequently caused Dupuis’ vocals to blend with the guitar notes and become muddled, it was a meaty and muscled performance from a band that, after an incredibly strong start, is still finding fresh ways to grow its sound within its established parameters.
The generational gap between the late-20s Dupuis and the early-40s Timony was one of the most interesting dynamics at play on Sunday. Dupuis has previously mentioned her love of Timony’s earlier work, and the influence of 90’s bands like Helium on the aesthetic of Speedy Ortiz is obvious. “We’re gonna play some rock jams for you,” Timony informed the crowd as she took the stage with bassist Betsy Wright and drummer Laura Harris, laying into tracks from Rips with a wild yet controlled abandon. It felt like a natural, more feminine and more polished progression from Speedy Ortiz’s youthful antagonism.
The thing about these three women is that they always seem to be having fun, and they always seem to be enjoying each others’ company, most of all in the moments when Timony and Wright meet in the middle of the stage and face each other to play in tandem. The video for “Hot and Cold,” one of Ex Hex’s first recordings as a band and one of the catchiest songs from Rips, depicts Wright and Harris enthusiastically crashing a lackluster date of Timony’s. There doesn’t seem to be any better way to portray this trio’s relationship: a tightly-knit unit that doesn’t negate the possibility of men, but doesn’t necessitate it, either.
Ultimately, Ex Hex’s performance was all I was hoping for (at the very least, transcendent, ear-filling noise) and then so much more. Songs like “How You Got That Girl” were poppy, straightforward and seemingly effortless, while others, like “Beast,” mined experiences from Timony’s past in a way that never failed to be good-natured, fun-loving and light. There is hardly a negative bone anywhere on the twelve tracks of Rips, and maybe that’s part of what makes it feel so fresh. My hope that the group continues to break ground for female musicians while crushing stereotypes left and right might err on the side of overly optimistic, but if Sunday night was any indicator, this tour might do just that.