The Ex are a band with which lots of boys I went to college with—the chowderhead kind with proud encyclopedic minds and (on good days) socialist agendas, the ones who got the girls—are obsessed, mostly, I think, because this Dutch five-piece has unassailable cred up the ass. Since 1979 (with some change-ups: bassist Luc and drummer Katrin have only been around for 17 years), these resolutely unglamorous, unremittingly anarchist politicos have offered up their discordant, inaccessible music (well, inaccessible for those like me, with short attention spans), linking properties of “high” and “low” art—the Ex are at once rarefied and populist. An international, “avant” aesthetic (affirmed by the group’s many collaborations, such as with the late cellist Tom Cora, and the tiresomely ubiquitous Sonic Youth) combines with their unapologetically straight-ahead lyrics and the thrashing, beating, and pummeling of instruments.
Their 15th album, Dizzy Spells, 12 tracks in just under an hour, exudes a brilliantly overarching sense of propulsion in the face of repetition—an undertow of urgency. The consistent pulse of each song throbs in a half-annoying, half-exciting way; and the lyrics are appropriately pissed off about the psychic trauma of consumer culture. In “Walt’s Dizzyland,” G.W. Sok complains that “Mickey, Walt, and Donald, and goofy cousin Ronald, they wanna swallow your souls” and in the chorus demands to know “are we fucked, are we nice, are we ducks, are we mice, are we men, are we mean, are we living?” It’s a small, small world.
On the whole, though, Dizzy Spells holds charms above and beyond the usual rote, as its rare encounters with melody prove arresting (if possibly ironic). “The Chair Needs a Patient” sounds, for about 20 buoyant seconds, gleeful and sardonic like the Sex Pistols, employing a barrage of lovely la-la-la‘s amid a funny mass of short proclamations: “The roof is bad, the pane is smashed, the child is mad.” The absorbing “Time Flies” and “Oskar Beck” meditate back-to-back on grand and perplexing subjects. The former provides an upbeat, nightmare-circus kind of background to super-enunciated chanting, closing with a pun: “Time flies, they’re all over me”; the latter, slow and introspective, showcases Katrin’s forceful lilt (which gets a furious, screaming workout on the later “River”), and advances a subtle prettiness also present in “Burnsome,” whose tense layering gives romantic inflection to its untoppling fury (repeated enraged line: “Worldwide crisis management!”). The Ex require work from their listeners (their predominant theme, after all, is that we are indeed fucked and must confront the horizon of history), but this work is not without rewards, especially if the desired result is, as Katrin sings, to “scoop the pool of waste-words off your mind.” No problem!
The Ex play the Knitting Factory June 20 and 21.