Monday, November 8, 2010

Drag City Unleashes Some Royal Trux Reissues!

Okay, here's the shameful secret: In 1988, I was in thrall to the power or UK label 4AD. And for every Pixies and Throwing Muses song that I still play, there's a Cocteau Twins b-side that I am still trying to scrub out of my psyche.

In 1993, I was under the sway of Suede, The Auteurs, and early Super Furry Animals. Great. No problem there except my deliberate avoidance of most American music at that time.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that in the past I had a bit of a closed mind -- and a limited budget -- and, so, stuck to a narrow path in the indie music wood.

I read about Royal Trux in 1988 and 1993 but probably didn't actually listen to the band's albums -- despite the local D.C. connection -- due to those factors described above.

The band broke up a few years ago, with Neil Hagerty forming The Howling Hex, as well as releasing albums under his own names Neil Michael Hagerty and Neil Hagerty.

Jennifer Herrema continues with a variation of the Royal Trux name in RTX.

But I was recently lucky enough to get my hands on two of the Royal Trux reissues from seminal indie label, Drag City, and I'm here to give you the lowdown.

Cats and Dogs (1993)

You know, Cats and Dogs makes me think of Primal Scream.

And I say that not just because both Royal Trux and Primal Scream share a love of Exile on Main Street-era Stones. No, it's more a case of another successful appropriation of earlier styles into something new.

That's not to say that tracks on this record don't sound like the era in which they were recorded. Opener "Teeth" prefigures what The Grifters would be cranking out in the near future in 1994 and 1995, for instance.

But, really, with 17 years between the album and now, "Up the Sleeve" just surprised the heck out of me. Not only are the vocals between Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty -- dare I say it? -- almost gentle, but the song shows as much beauty as anything off of Sonic Youth's Sister (1987).

It's like a sloppier version of side 2 of that first Mazzy Star record from 1990, and I mean that in a good way. Don't let that Smashing Pumpkins-"Cherub Rock"-guitar-and-drum roll fool you; this is not corporate rock but a reaction against it.

And it still has a melody. This is the shaping of past influences and atonality into a new and unique package.

"The Spectre -- about the DC Comics superhero? Probably not -- rocks and rolls on the strength of the rumbling drums and the fuzzed-out guitar and low vocals. Really, I've got to say it: there's a bit of a prefiguring of some White Stripes here without the stomp of Jack and Meg White.

The slide guitar on "The Flag" drives the back-and-forth rhythm of the song into something sounding like a punked version of an old Stones track.

Listening to the tracks on Cats and Dogs I'm struck by how post-modern and aware the whole affair is. I mean that in a good way.

If the Rolling Stones took blues forms and actually thought -- for a few years, at least -- that they were blues men, there's something hopeless and ridiculous about that. Sure, eventually the Stones turned into a real band and not just a bunch of white copyists but that took time.

And when Primal Scream, in their "Rocks" era, chose to emulate that same style, it felt and sounded like a Beatlemania of the Rolling Stones.

No, what Royal Trux are doing here is simply taking pieces of other forms and slamming them together; it's a mash-up but an engaging, concise, and catchy one on this album.

Sure, the nearly 7-minute closer of "Driving In That Car (With The Eagle On The Hood)" feels like a bit of a mood-killer, but the earlier tracks -- notably "Up The Sleeve" -- deliver a thoroughly listenable set of jams, equal parts Thurston Moore and Ron Wood.

Royal Trux (1988)

Okay, let's get this right out of the way: the debut, self-titled Royal Trux record is an abrasive listen.

There's no getting around the fact that Royal Trux (1988) sounds like it's being performed and recorded all in one go, for the first time anywhere.

But, hey, that's part of the charm of this band and the fact that that spontaneity still comes through 22 years later is an achievement of some sort.

As the group explains in the reissue's accompanying press release:

Neil: We rehearsed and recorded the same set of songs for two years in New York City with the other original core members, Anil Melnick and Michael Early. We recorded all the songs at least 3 times with totally different arrangements, sometimes I would sing lead, sometimes [Jennifer] would, different instrumentation, times and feels etc. We played live only a handful of times. Then we cut the tape, taking the versions we thought would serve us best and that’s the record.

Jennifer: When we did play live I sometimes could only put the gear on our skateboard and roll it over to the club...just keeping it close to the street...perfect start for a Career of Evil.

The 1988 debut remains a difficult listen, more interesting than essential. Still, songs like "Strawberry Soda" and "Incineration" chug along and sound better out of context -- maybe on a mix CD? -- than as part of a larger whole.