Singer-songwriter Mary Timony has good news and bad news about getting older. That deep emotional pain that comes out of being a teenager? It can stick around well into your 40s. But it does get easier to write songs about.
A survivor of the '90s alt-rock scene, Timony doesn't have the patience to mope. "Rips," the debut album from her new trio Ex Hex, marries an adolescent heart with a grown-up's wit. As much as these songs rant and rave about "smoking up" and "getting bent" — and the mean boys and girls we blame for wrecking us along the way — these are survivor's tales, with minimum fuss and maximum-gloss guitars.
"This was an experiment," says Timony, whose band headlines the Echo on Sunday. "I wanted to write more from an emotional place rather than a dreamy or analytical place. These are not escapist songs. These aren't funny ideas. They're emotionally raw about real life situations that you get in — or I get in, I guess."
There's never any uncertainty from Timony, bassist Laura Harris and drummer Betsy Wright. Timony says she was inspired by the directness of vintage recordings from Stax Records, wanting to blend the bluntness of old rhythm and blues with the aggressive nature of after-school basement shredding. These aren't gripes — just a dozen songs that point out human faults with brightly tuned, highly melodic accents.
"You know," she adds, "they're about the people who screwed me over. A lot of the songs I wrote are all saying, 'Stop screwing with me.' That's the theme: 'I'm going to mess you up, so you better stop screwing around with me.'"
There are cringe-inducing moments — memories of boyfriends passed out on the kitchen floor — and sharp jabs at the too cool, the too independent and the just plain flowery. The rainbow comes crashing down on "mother nature's son" in "Waste Your Time," in which stop-start riffs hit like slamming doors, and "Don't Want to Lose" tackles romantic hesitation while the beat makes it clear that no more time is going to be wasted.
Writing these songs wasn't easy, says the 44-year-old Timony, who teaches guitar lessons when not on tour. With Ex Hex, she had to learn how to kick some old habits.
Timony's groups in the '90s, including Autoclave and Helium, didn't shy away from dissonance or a weird detour. Her most recent project, Wild Flag, which boasted a pair of former Sleater-Kinney members in Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, often went for recklessness rather than the controlled tension of Ex Hex.
"I was just trying to say what I mean, even if it sounds dumb," Timony says. "I wanted the songs real and with not a lot of metaphors. The music is like that too. There's not a lot of flourishes. It's all pretty basic. It's harder to do that and have it be good.
"My tendency is to fall back on flourishes or metaphors or filler when I can't think of anything. If you're keeping it simple, you need to make sure you have something to say."
The inspiration was easy: a few decades of romantic foibles. During a relatively short phone call from her home in Washington, D.C., Timony described more than one song as chronicling the realization that "the dude you're attracted to is some loser who can't get his act together."
Recorded with Mitch Easter, who's perhaps known best for his early '80s production work with R.E.M., the songs on "Rips" were initially more complex, more slick. Yet one by one songs were stripped apart in the mixing process with Bobby Harlow, who has worked closely with Orange County's Burger Records.
"I wanted music you would listen to at a party, although these aren't vapid pop songs," Timony says. "The mindset was we ended up editing 95% of the ideas out. We got hard core with editing."
The result is an album with a bit of a classic rock sheen and a garage-rock edge. It's also unabashedly pop. Take the Wright-penned "How You Got That Girl," which is brimming with hand claps, "whoa-oh's" and a girl group snap, all while calling out an ex's tricks.
Then there's the more amped-up "Beast," which is all forward momentum as the lyrics briefly turn inward while musing over a missed opportunity. "That's when I found out I was wrong," Timony sings just as the song gives her space to breathe. "When you count on nothing, nothing comes along."
"I'm in my 40s, so these are lyrics definitely written by someone a little older," Timony says. "I've never thought of myself as a wise, experienced person with knowledge to share. I'm just trying to figure this all out along with everyone else."