“Angie, are you tough enuh-uff/To let it go?” asks Mary Timony over sugared electric guitar churn at the outset of Ex Hex’s latest, immortalizing a new rock’n’roll Angie with as much performative heartache and swagger as Jagger, maybe more. Ex Hex’s second album is about garage-rock thrust at its core, like prime Stones and their own debut Rips. Like that LP, it draws a through-line from the Shangri-Las to Blondie to Sleater-Kinney to, well, Ex-Hex.
This time, though, pop-metal production shine adds a new meta-textual layer, conjuring visions of the CBGB Class of ‘76 upscaled to the arena rock of ’86, thanks in part to furniture maker-turned indie-rock production swami Jonah Takagi. It’s nothing but guitars, bass, and drums, but the sound is huge, bulked up with vocal reverb, choice pedals and amps. The latter includes Timony’s miniature Rockman, an iconic tone tool that became a signature of guitarists from Boston’s Tom Scholz — who invented it — to Charlotte Caffey, Curt Kirkwood and the dudes in Def Leppard (see pretty much every track of Hysteria).
It’s Real is mainly concerned with the bruising-ness of love. Every song involves a second-person addressee; lovers are “black and blue,” emotionally or otherwise, feeling “haunted” and “misunderstood,” fading away. It’s rough terrain, but Timony refuses to sulk or back down; this is a record about fighting to stay connected, a commendable impulse right about now. Fittingly, the energy never flags, with plenty of familiar gestures to trainspot. “Diamond Drive” is a pogo-fest with a riff suggesting Lou Reed’s “Vicious.” “Medley” conjures latter-day Patti Smith, “Because the Night” in particular; “Radiate” seems to wink at Blondie; “No Reflection” echoes Joan Jett’s mighty cover of “Crimson and Clover;” “Cosmic Cave” recalls the Ramones cover of “Do You Wanna Dance?” with a non-binary twist.
The set ends with “Talk To Me,” positing The Ronettes as a hair metal band, which of course they always were. All told, It’s Real rejigs rock history in both sound and spirit. It resists pat endings where lovers reunite, or crash and burn, or dissolve, as the “hero” rambles on to the next town or right-swipe. Instead, it’a about sticking it out, talking it out, love as it’s lived in the world: as struggle and process, not package, as real as the effort you’re willing to put in.