Dutch punk legends The Ex have notched up over three decades of performing and recording. During this time, they’ve managed to stay politically and musically relevant, making a mockery of any attempt to divide these adverbs. They are a rare example of a band who have kept going without becoming the least bit dull or repetitive. The longstanding core of the group — vocalist G.W. Sok, guitarists Terrie Hessels and Andy Moor, drummer Katherina Bornefeld, and bassist Luc — was broken prior to the band’s last studio album, Turn, when Luc left and, more recently, by the more surprising departure of founding member Sok. Undeterred, the remaining members recruited former Ex collaborator Arnold de Boer, who provides vocals, samples, and a third guitar to the new lineup.
Over the years, The Ex have remained sonically exciting by constantly adding elements to their basic drum-and-guitar sound, working with an ever richer palette of global styles. The band’s interest in world music and experimental styles dates back to the 1980s. (The ambitious 1989 double album Joggers & Smoggers provides good examples of both tendencies.) In recent years, this interest has led to collaborations with African musicians and European improvisers. Prior to Catch My Shoe, The Ex’s major release since 2004’s Turn was a collaboration with Ethiopian saxophone legend Getatchew Mekurya.
The new album finds the group’s preferred mode of delivery still to be the persistent riff, catchy chunks of synced and psyched guitars pummeling their way through often lengthy tracks, matched to powerhouse drumming that recalls such Afrobeat luminaries as Tony Allen. On top of or alongside this ever-present motor, each track places emphasis on a different sound. Album opener and single “Maybe I Was The Pilot” adds impatient, squealing horns (reminiscent of 2001’s Ex Orkest album, Een Rondje Holland) and is based on a recording of Ugandan music from the 1950s. Vocals are more to the fore on punk-poem “Double Order,” allowing us a chance to compare de Boer’s delivery to the familiar sound of Sok. The difference is not enormous, the new vocalist perhaps less of a fan of verbal deconstruction and mockery but still keenly aware of words as weapons. On “Cold Weather Is Back,” meanwhile, the drums take the lead, later to be joined by those insistent horns.
The variety of musical textures that The Ex layer into each performance make for continued interest and invite repeated listening. They also ensure that, while political messages inform the lyrics as much as ever, musical style is the star. Ex songs are wordy without being preachy, serious without being solemn, faithful to the funk as much as to the band’s philosophy. Or, rather, their allegiance is to an always-already funked-up philosophy. Ample proof of this can be found in the delicious polyrhythms set up in the second half of “Bicycle Illusion” or in the tightly controlled uncontrol of “Life Whining” (the only track on the album under five minutes, the only track that didn’t need to be much longer than three). Add to that a love of snaky basslines that goes back to the group’s very first recordings and you have a recipe for thought and feeling that’s second to none.
Further evidence of the band’s fascination with African music can be found amidst the intoxicating trance guitar patterns of “Double Order,” clearly indebted to Congolese likembé collective Konono Nº1, with whom The Ex have collaborated in the past. A sound which we will have to call “Kononoesque” is also insistently present during the closing frenzy of “Bicycle Illusion.” “Eyoleo,” a high-speed duel between drums and scratchy desert guitar, is sourced from the Gurage people of Ethiopia, showing that the band is interested not merely in generic ethnicisms, but rather in learning about and promoting lesser-known localized cultural forms. (Compare the inclusion of an old Eritrean liberation song on Turn.) This, along with their continued involvement in grassroots cultural work in Ethiopia, showcases a level of commitment that exceeds issues of musical style, even as that musical style is enticingly laid before us. Vampire Weekend take note.
Catch My Shoe, the title of which comes from a lyric in the pounding guitarfest of epic closing track “24 Problems,” is proof of musicians who sounds as young as, if not younger than, yesterday and whose prolonged career continues to inspire. This album fits into the venerable history of The Ex and will make you want to dig out the old albums, too. History, as the band told us back in 1982, is what’s happening now. Catch their show.