The basics of Beefheart, Mary Timony wakes up
Sun Zoom Spark: 1970 to 1972
"There are better Captain Beefheart albums”—this tidbit from a friend years ago stuck with me, after I had mentioned that I was most familiar with the canonized Zappa-produced 1969 album Trout Mask Replica.
1967’s Safe As Milk, featuring guitarist Ry Cooder, was canonized for contemporary audiences in the film High Fidelity, with Jack Black sadistically dangling his copy of it in front of an envious and obsessed record collector.
The idea of an artist’s canon is fine, to gel critical consensus in order to help the uninitiated; however, sometimes the existence of a canon can stop a person from exploring beyond it, which is unfortunate.
Some might consider this heresy, but today, this writer wouldn’t even put Trout Mask Replica in his personal top three for Beefheart, as fantastic an album as it is. The albums that really click for him are 1980’s Doc at the Radar Station and the three from the early ’70s which are conveniently compiled on the new boxed set Sun Zoom Spark: Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970), The Spotlight Kid (1972) and Clear Spot (1972).
Fans might moan about having to re-buy The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot (already widely available on a 2-on-1 CD), but they will definitely want the re-mastered Decals (after being out-of-print on CD for years) and the fourth CD of alternate versions, rehearsals and outtakes from 1971 and 1972.
The CDs come in miniature album replica paperboard sleeves; the accompanying 7-inch-by-7-inch booklet is a bit scant on artwork and photos, but it features a well-written essay by Rip Rense and a new poem by Tom Waits.
Sun Zoom Spark actually wouldn’t be a bad purchase for brave newcomers, if they listened to it in reverse chronological order, going from relatively accessible moments (like the horn-enhanced soul-pop of “Too Much Time”) to more strikingly jagged and radical material.
The transformation is startling when comparing a smooth, pacifying number like “My Head Is My Only House When It Rains” from Clear Spot, to the bustling, rugged precision of “Lick My Decals Off, Baby,” with John French’s distinctive busy-bee drumming, where the emphasis is never quite where you expect it to be.
Bill Harkleroad’s guitar work resembles diamond-cut shards of notes, and Beefheart’s vocals just ooze with his distinguished hobo-blues wild-eyed singing style, resonating deeply in a space only he can occupy.
Mary Timony’s ’90s band Helium was subjected to two Beavis and Butthead critiques, and in the one for the music video “XXX,” Butthead says, “I think this chick just like woke up or something,” commenting on the groggy, lumbering pace of the song and her wandering and wilting vocal delivery.
“She probably doesn’t start really rocking until later, like in the afternoon or something,” says Beavis.
It’s officially the afternoon for Timony, figuratively speaking, with her new band Ex Hex, which shares its name with her 2005 solo album. With drummer Laura Harris and bassist Betsy Wright, Timony is going for a more straightforward, hooky and upbeat rock sound with Ex Hex, bringing to mind mid-to-late ’70s American punk acts like The Runaways and Richard Hell.
Actually, it’s perhaps most similar to Timony’s first band from 25 years ago, Autoclave, an all-woman quartet with a small, yet potent discography of power-pop/rock nuggets. Timony’s new direction is simple, if less ambitious and distinctive than certain previous outings, and this writer would like to plug Helium’s 1995 album The Dirt of Luck as a career highlight.
On the debut album Rips, recorded with esteemed producer/engineer Mitch Easter in North Carolina and in Timony’s D.C. basement, Ex Hex sounds like it is always in control with its delivery, without the threat of becoming unhinged.
Its production style has a certain sheen to it, a bit chiseled rather than raw; Timony’s singing is more urgent and engaged than before, with punk inflections. It was odd to learn that she had recently taken voice lessons; in an interview with The Washington Post, Timony said, “It’s not the ’90s anymore and you can’t get by with whining on stage.”
All things considered, Ex Hex consistently hits the new target that Timony has put in place, blasting through garage-rock stompers like the opener “Don’t Wanna Lose,” with a couplet that is perhaps a nod to “Psychotic Reaction” by Count Five. On paper, “Hot and Cold” sounds like a trifle, with big dumb chords and a “Crimson and Clover vibe,” but it is surprisingly infectious.
Is Timony’s talent and creativity wasted here, playing fairly basic, yet above-average punk? This writer just shrugs, and he can’t discount the feeling that Timony has never sounded happier in her music than with Ex Hex.