Oh, Olympia. Four blocks of Good Will Hunting-extra-looking, granola-eating, planet-saving, feminist-flag-waving, Pacific-Northwest diva-cup-loving kids. Olympia seems backwards and time-warped to me today, but I owe a lot to certain people in that town. Olympia is the soft, all-natural hemp C-cup bra that supported my band way back when we were barely a band. Olympia, I can dislike you, but I will always have to love you.
Back in December 2014, we played a show in Seattle with our hometown boys Mormon Crosses and this band from Olympia called Vexx. The promoter put them on the bill; we hadn’t met them beforehand and I haven’t talked to them since.
Vexx plays and I go into the audience and watch. They start and I am completely mesmerized. I turn around and look at my drummer, Anne-Marie Vassiliou, with my mouth hanging open.
“I know,” she responds. “They are so good.”
“This is mental. It’s….” I just want to turn back around and watch.
When Vexx performs, it’s all-encompassing. Drummer Corey Rose Evans pounds away like Animal from the Muppet Babies on the best speed Lemmy Kilmister ever had. She drums the hell out of her kit with an inimitable style that you can’t take your eyes off. Ian Corrigan’s (he did not play on the album, but plays with the band live) basslines are the glue, the melody that coats the spaces in between Mike Liebman’s sparkled, charged guitar parts. Liebman plays guitar like a paradox, he has this innocent cockiness that only a twentysomething, know-it-all shithead can really pull off.
Then there’s frontwoman Mary Jane Dunphe who, on the night when I saw Vexx, was dressed in all white with no shoes. She was bouncing, kicking and giving her performance Bellevue-worthy theatrics from start to finish. She’s relentless, running her hands all over her face and triumphantly saluting the back of the room. She’s animalistic one minute, slithering on the floor, and then the next she’s up and hopping into the drums. Then she’s taunting the audience, direct, sarcastic and powerful. Vexx interact with their crowd as a willing spectacle. They make themselves extensions of their written work.
Look, I know the whole thing: punk isn’t supposed to be polished. I get it. What always attracted me to punk rock in the first place was the imperfections of its performers. But music is still music. A song is still a song. If I want to hear the sounds of trash, I’ll run my fucking garbage disposal. I appreciate when a band can really write a goddamned song, and Dave Harvey (who recorded and engineered the release) showcases Vexx’s abilities without any unnecessary production.
On their self-titled album, Vexx proves they can’t be referenced. Yeah, there’s traces of all the things that made American punk of the late ’70s and early ’80s, like the Bags, Zero Boys and the Avengers, untouchable: pop sensibilities, raw energy and inspired, drug-addled lyrics teetering between self-hatred and self-confidence. But, even as they keep the roots in mind, Vexx do their own thing. Liebman’s guitar goes from hectic, almost metal in “Clairvoyant,” “Roky, Take Me Home” and “Spirit/Constraint” to beach punk Greg Ginn (without the suck) in “Stress” and “Falling Down.” The drum parts are unpredictable and never let up. One listen and the melodies are running through your head; even at their most spastic, Vexx always have a hook.
But the standout here is “Strength,” an awkward, driving punk ballad that showcases Dunphe’s vocal range and demanding charm as a frontwoman. She never begs or sulks. She’s all confidence. You believe in the woman when she declares herself. There are so many nuances in “Strength” that kill me: that little riff Liebman plays under Dunphe’s struggling holler on the chorus as she sings “I have strength,” the horse-trot beat in the second verse that reverts as soon as you get hip to it, that goddamned guitar solo. I appreciate melody construction more than anything. I appreciate the care it takes to make multiple instruments work together to create one powerful force. Some groups do it with ease. They were just meant to write together. You can tell Vexx is one of those bands, and it’s a rare thing to find today.
I don’t know anyone in Vexx personally. It was just one night. But that said, Vexx, if you ever come across this, it is certainly not my aim to make you feel like it’s some great privilege to have me kiss your butt. I hate butt-kissing and I’m sure you do too. I’m just a huge fan. I want the world to know about you. I want as many people as possible to come and see your band play because you are what punk rock should be. There’s too many unlistenable, unoriginal examples of “punk rock” all over the so-called tastemaker publications and that’s just bad education. I want everyone with a brain to go to Vexx school at least once. I want the world hooked on your library.