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Washington’s Ex Hex delivers pithy, 1970s-style rock at the 9:30 Club

Mary Timony, left, Laura Harris, back, and Betsy Wright of Ex Hex perform at the 9:30 Club in Washington. (Photo by Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)
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Ex Hex, the all-female D.C. trio that galvanized a nearly full 9:30 Club on Friday night, could be described as a back-to-basics outfit. Except that the pithy, 1970s-style rock the musicians play is something they’d never done before the group’s 2014 debut, “Rips.”

The band’s most prominent member is singer, guitarist and principal songwriter Mary Timony. She began her career in 1990 with Autoclave, a short-lived local quartet, but got a lot more attention with her next project: the Boston-based group Helium. While both groups were arguably part of the punk continuum, their music was more oblique than Ex Hex’s straight-ahead rock. The songs on the band’s recent second album, “It’s Real,” stretch out a bit, but remain firmly moored in such ’70s modes as glam, new wave and pop-metal.

Friday’s homecoming gig was Ex Hex’s last date on its U.S. tour before a short hiatus and then two weeks in Europe. The road-tested musicians were in fine form, meshing skillfully on such sleek tunes as “Diamond Drive” and “How You Got That Girl.” The band chugged through 14 songs in 55 minutes, supplemented by bassist David Christian so that Betsy Wright could concentrate on guitar. The cannily derivative material was stoked by power chords and refrains sung in unison by Timony, Wright and drummer Laura Harris.

The band’s lyrics, most of which seem to be about lost love, include such warnings as, “Acting tough ain’t good enough.” The music tells a different story, and so did the show’s staging: Timony in black, Wright in white and Harris in red in front of a retro-neon “Ex Hex” sign. Timony and Wright’s guitar duels verged on macho, but swaggered only briefly. Even the freest moment, the suitably spacey outro of “Cosmic Cave,” was carefully calculated.

Timony is an adept musician, but she’s not — or chooses not to be — as wide-ranging as Anthony Pirog, another local guitar champion. Among Pirog’s many projects is the one that opened for Ex Hex: the Messthetics.

That instrumental trio matches guitarist Pirog with drummer Brendan Canty and bassist Joe Lally, Fugazi’s rhythm section. The group played tightly plotted instrumentals whose speed-metal and prog-rock flourishes were anchored by funk’s propulsion and restrained by punk’s economy. Like Ex Hex, the Messthetics sometimes explored the cosmic, but never journeyed very long before returning to the basics.

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