One of these days, we’re going to learn. In 2010, when Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss teamed up with Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole to form Wild Flag, it seemed like a fun substitute for Sleater-Kinney. Except that Wild Flag self-titled album was fucking amazing — a giddy burst of power-pop hooks and guitar-hero theatrics. It was great on its own, not just as an addendum to another band’s legacy. Then when Timony, late of Wild Flag (and Helium and Autoclave and a solo career), formed Ex Hex with Betsy Wright and Laura Harris, that seemed like a fun substitute for Wild Flag. Except then Ex Hex’s 2014 debut Rips was fucking amazing, too — a riot of ’70s punk riffs and starburst hooks. And now that Ex Hex haven’t done much lately, bassist Betsy Wright has branched off and formed the new band Bat Fangs with drummer Laura King, it might be tempting to think about their new album in terms of the new Ex Hex album that we’re not getting. That would be a mistake, and it would be a mistake that we’ve made before. Because Bat Fangs kick fucking ass on their own terms. And if Laura King goes off and forms a new band of her own in a couple of years, that’ll probably rule, too. That seems to be how this thing works.
If you’ve ever seen Ex Hex live, you remember Wright; she was the one who always seemed to be having the most fun onstage. Wright, who formerly led the very good Charlottesville psych-rock band the Fire Tapes, is a classic rock ‘n’ roll ass-kicker. Onstage, she sneers and kicks and twirls, just reveling in everything she’s doing. Even at an industry feeding-frenzy like SXSW, where I saw Ex Hex a couple of times and where even the best performers come across glazed and deadened onstage before too long, Wright always seemed to live fully in the moment. It made her a great supporting player, and it makes her a better bandleader. In Bat Fangs, she plays fuzzed-out, bottom-heavy riffs and blazingly triumphant guitar solos and fast garage-rock chugs, and she sings with a time-honored tough-kid detachment. If a band has only two members, one of those people needs to be an absolute fucking dynamo, and that’s what Wright is.
Bat Fangs work from a playbook not too dissimilar from what Wild Flag and Ex Hex did before them. The stew of influences is similar: twinkling power-pop, hessian riff-rock, kitsch-damaged new wave, rip-snorting garage, hooks-first early-’90s riot grrrl. But Bat Fangs are different because Wright is different. As two-piece, Wright and King thrive on simplicity and chemistry, and you can hear the joy they bring to the rumbling two-note riff on “Static.” (It’s a lot like the Cramps’ “Human Fly” riff, until it isn’t.) They sing great harmonies. Their songs are sharp and raw and focused, but they’re way more concerned with bringing hooks than with projecting ferocity. Bat Fangs remind me a bit of the perpetually underrated Free Energy in the mercenary way they mine past generations of rock ‘n’ roll for hooks and attitude, rolling along from climax to climax with no dead time whatsoever. Bat Fangs is an exceedingly short blurt of vitality, nine songs in about 25 minutes, and it leaves you breathless by the time it’s over.
As a songwriter, Wright is in love with cliche, with the way meaningless rock ‘n’ roll babble can still sound so fucking cool if it’s sung with enough conviction. She seems to pick her words based on how much fun it might be to sing them: “Hangin’ tough in another dimension,” “You can rock the reaper with your midnight kiss / Be careful, baby, that’s dangerous.” Her sha la las can be as meaningful as her actual words. But she’s not speaking about nothingness; there’s usually some serious emotion buried in there. Bat Fangs love old-school horror-movie iconography in a way that reminds me more of fellow DC punk greats Slant 6 than it does, say, the Misfits. She uses them as metaphors; other people are werewolves or vampires, trying to feed off of her energy. But it never gets heavy; Wright simply makes her point and then moves onto whatever timelessly cool lyrical riff she’s concocted next: “Feels like I’m living somebody else’s dream / Yeah, I got shot down with an ice cold laser beam.” Even when she’s sad, she brings the fun. We should appreciate that level of fun now, while it’s happening.
Bat Fangs is out 2/2 on Don Giovanni.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Justin Timberlake’s I-guess-we’ll-see Man Of The Woods.
• Rhye’s genteel boudoir-pop return Blood.
• The Soft Moon’s raw, abrasive post-punker Criminal
• Field Music’s twitchy art-popper Open Here.
• Hookworms’ motorik-infused psych-rocker Microshift.
• Erik Phillips’ quiet, intimate One.
• Former Citay leader Ezra Feinberg’s solo debut Pentimento And Others.
• Godspeed You! Black Emperor member Efrim Manuel Menuck’s solo album Pissing Stars.
• Ben Montero’s colorful psych-popper Performer.
• EMA’s Outtakes From Exile EP.