Last week I went to a live show by myself for the first time to see Ex Hex, Mary Timony’s latest band whose first album, Rips, was my favorite of last year. I don’t really love shows for a lot of reasons, so if I ever go to one, it’s a fairly ringing endorsement of the people involved. In this case, Timony has been one of my favorite artists for years, and it was worth putting up with all the dumb parts of live shows to see Ex Hex’s set.
Timony is having a bit of a resurgence in popularity lately, first as a member of Wild Flag who released one great album in 2011, and now as a member of Ex Hex, who played to a packed house on a Monday night. This comes about 20 years after her initial peak as frontwoman of Helium. Timony initially made a name for herself in that band playing the kind of noisy, guitar-driven indie rock that was common at the time, but she separated herself from the pack with her dark feminist-leaning lyrics and imagery, which was showcased in music videos for songs like “XXX” from 1994’s Pirate Prude EP and “Pat’s Trick” from 1995’s The Dirt of Luck.
Those early Helium albums hold up as some of the best rock music of that era, but Timony’s career gets more interesting after them. In 1997, the band moved in a different direction with the No Guitars EP, which fused Timony’s love of progressive rock and fantasy with their indie rock sound. They expanded on this later that year with The Magic City, a semi-concept album with a medieval fantasy theme and lyrics about dragons, space, and various other celestial topics.
The Magic City has consistently ranked among my favorite albums, and one that always makes me get on my soapbox, since I think it’s so woefully underappreciated. I remember it being one of the first albums that really showed me the power music could have as a form of escape: Timony crafted a complete world of her own, and when I listened to The Magic City, I felt like I was there. It has this mystical, strange, dark feeling I’ve never really heard in other music, while also still functioning as a rock album with real song-craft.
But while they were well-reviewed at the time, No Guitars and The Magic City have mostly fallen by the wayside, even among the relatively small niche of people who are still discussing Helium. When they are mentioned, it’s often just as a contrast to Helium’s earlier music: “their early stuff is great, but you can skip everything else.” And I think there is a general perception that Timony wasn’t playing to her strengths and indulging in random flights of fancy instead of making the music she was known for that people liked.
This criticism would dog her even more after Helium broke up and she continued to follow this fantasy theme on her first two solo albums, 2000’s Mountains and 2002’s The Golden Dove. While The Magic City had the medieval fantasy theme, parts of it still resembled music from a traditional guitar-driven rock band. When she went solo, Timony went even further away from her trademark guitar playing, instead often relying on piano and other unorthodox instrumentation, as well as singing with breathy and soft vocals compared to her more forceful Helium persona. The reaction to Mountains is perhaps best surmised by an old Pitchfork review, which gave it a 4.7 and at the end practically begged for Timony to get back to playing her guitar like she did with Helium. The Golden Dove didn’t seem to fare much better, and both these albums are virtually ignored now. Timony eventually returned to more traditional indie rock on 2005’s Ex Hex and now as a member of the band with the same name, playing the type of music most people want to hear.
I obviously am a big fan of Ex Hex, and it is fun to see Timony playing upbeat, happy music while being in the spotlight again. But there is a big place in my heart for this stretch of weird fantasy albums, which I think are total self-contained genius — moody, mysterious, fantastical, and truly individual. They fit into the traditional mold of fantasy literature, with songs steeped in metaphor as imaginary elements often stand in for real life struggles. At first, I found them difficult to listen to because they were so strange and challenging, but those traits are why I find myself coming back to them, since there is always something new to discover.
What I love most about these albums is how deeply uncool they are — few artists have spent this much energy pursuing such an obviously unmarketable vision. Progressive rock is often a punching bag for indie rock snobs, and the nerdy Dungeons-and-Dragonsy lyrics and references to animals like doves, cats, and horses made it pretty easy to dismiss her music in the way that old Pitchfork review did. But they are the albums Mary Timony wanted to make, and are an honest reflection of who she was at that time. Given Timony’s early success with Helium, there is something powerful and even inspiring about completely changing it up and making these albums, even at the obvious risk of losing her “cool factor” and alienating a reasonable chunk of her old fans. I’ll pretty much always have time for artists who really try to do something new with their music and don’t give a crap about all the other distractions.
This all gave me kind of a weird feeling when I went to the Ex Hex show — it was strange to see such a big crowd when I feel that Timony’s music has been criminally overlooked. And I couldn’t help but wonder how many people there had even heard Mountains or The Golden Dove (maybe I should have gone around and asked). Ex Hex put on a great show and are one of the best straight-forward rock bands out there right now, but I think Timony’s true legacy lies in these seldom-heard, strange fantasy albums — and the fact that she made them at all is why she will always be one of my favorite artists.