There is No Point in Writing About This Ex Hex Album I Wrote About

An album like Ex Hex’s latest, It’s Real, requires very deep thought and consideration. To truly understand it, one must have a firm grasp on music theory and history, not to mention the ability to understand the sophisticated layers of meaning within every note the band plays. With all that said, I’ve put a lot of thought into this and feel that I’m up to the task of explaining this album’s unique appeal: it it has rock and roll songs that sound good, and I enjoy listening to them.

This is the second album for Mary Timony’s project, following 2014’s Rips, and there is something weirdly satisfying about how little the band has changed between albums. It’s Real scoffs at the notion of bands “making a statement” or “breaking through” and is content to simply entertain on its own terms without necessarily sparking an array of thinkpieces and discussion. While I’m certainly someone who enjoys albums that require some effort to get into, there is also a place for an album like this that only asks you to turn the volume up and your brain off.

There isn’t really a point in analyzing the songs, which are all in a similar vein of having catchy guitar riffs, melodies, and lyrics that focus on basic themes of having a good time with some slight psychedelic undertones, mostly from Timony’s patented head-in-the-clouds singing. Betsy Wright also takes lead on a couple of the strongest songs, the tough rocker “Rainbow Shiner” and the breezier “Radiate.” I truly intend to be complimentary when I say that this is not music that is really improved upon by intense lyrical breakdowns and deconstructions of its sound. Listening to it does not make you desire to read about it, which I suppose calls into question this entire exercise.

What is maybe worth analyzing is how It’s Real functions as an argument in favor of musicians with experience. Timony has been making indie rock for over 25 years now and this album has an effortless quality where it feels like she’s just writing great pop songs in her sleep. She has already done everything that today’s young indie rock bands are trying to do — she had her great angsty rock albums, her more sophisticated “break-out” albums, and her alienating artsy albums. Now with all that experience behind her, she doesn’t feel a need to impress anyone or prove herself, and I think that energy is part of what makes Ex Hex a refreshing band right now. It’s Real has strengthened her case as the indie rock GOAT, not that she cares about trying to convince anyone.

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: Curiouser and Curiouser

I’ve mentioned a few times how Broadcast had one of the most satisfying arcs of any band I’m a fan of, which ties into the somewhat nebulous concept of a band “progressing” from album to album. At the root of this desire to evolve as a band, there has to be some element of dissatisfaction with their previous output, even if it is material as good as The Noise Made By People and Haha Sound. Initially, it was jarring to look up old interviews with Trish Keenan around the release of Tender Buttons and see her dismiss albums I think are so great. “We always wear our references too much on our sleeves,” she said prior to the release of this album. “We needed to do something that was more us, other than in the shadow of all the 60s bands.”

On Tender Buttons, Broadcast shed away all of the excess references and inspirations that defined a lot of their previous music and presented the most distilled version of themselves. While minimalist in construction, the new duo set-up brings out more of Keenan herself, and this feels like her most personal work with the most heart of any Broadcast album. It’s also yet another lesson in how simplicity in music can bring out the most complex emotions.

Keenan’s lyrics on the album were the result of “automatic writing,” a supernatural or spiritual concept that I probably wouldn’t believe in if anyone else claimed it was legitimate, but who am I to argue with Trish. “They are my free falling thoughts,” she said of the lyrics. “I believe that words have their own life; that if you throw words together, they naturally make sense. Language just wants to be understood.” The songs fit Keenan’s description and are built around seemingly random phrases and repetition that are left to be figured out by the listener. This style is my favorite part of Tender Buttons; it feels more human and natural than traditional lyricism, which is so often built around artifice in terms of contrived rhyming schemes and ham-fisted “meaning.” It takes a kind of humble brilliance to let the words form their own meaning for the listener organically instead of using your music to tell people how they should feel, and I’m increasingly convinced this is a key part of Broadcast’s timeless appeal.

The automatic writing is part of what makes the album more overtly spooky as Keenan and Cargill became more fascinated with supernatural and ghostly themes that would partially define the band’s later work. “Black Cat” is built around the titular image, which is a staple of scary kid’s stories and superstitions, along with phrases that contain little nuggets of meaning: “curiouser and curiouser,” “awkwardness happening to someone you love,” “shadowing masonic verve.” Keenan’s voice is less sing-songy than before; at times she is closer to speaking than singing, which is part of why the atmosphere is more frigid and unsettling compared to their previous style. I find Tender Buttons to be their most difficult album to get into for that reason, but eventually the humanity and sense of wonder in Broadcast’s music shines through, even in the new setting.

In typical Broadcast fashion, the songs here combine eeriness and warmth in a way that I’m not sure any other artist has done at this level. Some of their most affecting songs are on Tender Buttons: “Tears in the Typing Tool” is a spare ballad Keenan sang for her father, who was dying of a terminal illness. A personal favorite is “Corporeal,” which has an addictive motorik groove and lyrics that connect a lot of Broadcast’s most resonant themes for me, in particular the merging of humanity and technology. I also am always moved by the simple instrumental closing track, “I Found the End,” which has gained a deeper meaning through Keenan’s death and feels like the end of an era for the band as the closing to their last traditional pop album.

While this is nothing close to as playful as Haha Sound, there are some more upbeat tracks on the back half that play off the delightful absurdity of Keenan’s lyrics. “Michael A Grammar” is Broadcast’s version of a danceable pop song; Keenan fittingly sings “my feet are dancing so much and I hate that.” “Goodbye Girls” was inspired by prostitution, but its bouncy sound helps put a positive, empathetic spin on a subject that is rarely portrayed with any depth in art. It’s another small example of how Keenan added so much humanity to these songs.

Tender Buttons, like Haha Sound before it, shows how a band can evolve and grow while still being true to themselves. Even with the sounds changing so much on each album, Keenan’s singing, lyrics, and presence gave the band a foundation that carried through in everything they made. On this album, she proved that she only needed her voice and the most minimal instrumentation to make some of the most creative and enduring pop songs ever made.

The Real Angel Olsen Has Arrived

As someone who does the whole “having critical opinions about music” thing, I often find myself forming backseat ideas of where artists I feel have potential should go with their work. I’m sure all fans do this on some level, where they form expectations for upcoming releases and hope it lives up to them. But I don’t know if people who aren’t deep into this music criticism hole can fully appreciate how satisfying it is when an artist does exactly what you hoped they would.

Angel Olsen has done that on her new single, “All Mirrors,” which is my favorite song of the year by some margin, to the point that I’m listening to it almost non-stop, and when I’m doing anything else I’m thinking “I wish I was listening to ‘All Mirrors’ right now.” This is one of those perfect songs where the artist finally figures out who she is (or at least who I want her to be, which works all the same in my book).

I’m not a big fan of folk/alt country music, so I wasn’t too interested in Olsen’s acclaimed early albums. It wasn’t until her last album, My Woman, that I thought she showed how much talent and charisma she has, particularly on songs like “Shut Up Kiss Me” and its psychedelic centerpiece, “Sister.” On her new single, she’s ditched the guitars entirely and gone full-blown dramatic synth goth. It’s a breathtaking song and video that warrants comparisons to the heavy-hitters of this style of large-scale pop: Kate Bush and Björk (especially the Homogenic and Vulnicura eras). But Olsen’s voice is distinctive enough that it doesn’t feel like she’s copying anyone — this sound is hers more than any of her previous material.

It’s funny that this comes on the heels of that Sleater-Kinney song, where the band went synth and it didn’t fit any of them and made no sense. Whereas on this song, Olsen is exactly where she should be. Her voice sounds better than it ever has in this setting and her lyrics are actually more impactful when surrounded by the cinematic synths, beats, and strings. I’m not one to comment on artists’ appearances much, but I also feel a certain journalistic responsibility to point out that she looks like a god in this video, which has kind of a Sunset Boulevard vibe when combined with the lyrics about “losing beauty.” Every element of this just fits and if this represents the direction of her next album, I am very excited.

Something that has always bothered me about the discourse surrounding folk music is this assumption that artists who only play a guitar and whisper in their songs convey more authenticity and emotion than artists who go for bigger, more dramatic sounds. There are already plenty of counterpoints to that, but this song proves that Olsen’s music is more powerful and real than ever, even as she leaves that style in the dust.