Monday, November 7, 2011

Another Awesome Royal Trux Reissue From Drag City

Sometimes, I play this stuff and a voice in my head goes: "Royal Trux: fuck yeah!"

Other times, I just listen and try to pick apart all the pieces -- influences and inspirations -- that go into what this band is doing.

I guess that's why Royal Trux was a fascinating band.

Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty satisfied both the carnal need to rock out as well as the need to be intellectually stimulated by the process and product.

They were a lot like Primal Scream that way.

Last year, Drag City reissued 2 early Royal Trux albums and now they've given the deluxe treatment to another Trux recording: 1997's Singles, Live, Unreleased, a 3-LP, 2-CD grab-bag of singles and live cuts and rarities -- sort of what the title says.

Considering how much I venerate the pop single, it's probably no surprise to hear that I like this collection of tunes even more than most of the band's studio albums. This remastered collection haphazardly and inadvertently charts the evolution of the band and provides a perfect introduction to the group as well.

Start here if you're a scared newbie.

Now, on to the tunes (or, at least the highlights among these 32 cuts).

"Esso Dame" kicks things off in glorious fashion. A raucous -- there's a shock -- mix of Sonic Youth and Alice Cooper, the song is playful-but-sinister and, in some ways, the perfect distillation of the strengths of Royal Trux.

The NYC noise rock of "No Fixed Address" -- early Sonic Youth, or Lydia Lunch, maybe? -- mixes nicely with the blues-y explorations here, stuff like "Red Tiger" which itself feels dangerously close to the Stones: think "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" drawn out to the breaking point with Herrema wailing in the background like a sick Patti Smith.

This 32-song collection is not chronologically ordered so there's no sense of progression for a casual listener. Still, the very nature of this comp. gives it a ragged glory; it's like someone grabbed a bunch of demos and radio session tapes and ran out of a burning studio. If that sounds exciting to you, you'll probably enjoy Singles, Live, Unreleased as much as I do.

"Steal Your Face" sounds like what a Joan Jett/Paul Westerberg team-up should sound like (but, yeah, I loved that "Backlash" single they did anyway). This track practically purrs, I can't tell who is singing -- or should I say, slurring? -- the words, and the guitar cranks with menace: just a wonderful, trashy bit of post-rock.

Things calm down a bit with "Back to School" which is almost lovely in the way that a Hendrix ballad is. It's still a messy bit of rock-and-roll business but it's a pretty one.

A straight cover of Milton Nascimento's "Faca Amolada" is a surprise. With guitar playing like Jimmy Page's on Side One of Led Zeppelin III, Hagerty reveals himself to be a pretty adept musician despite his penchant for noise and squawk. The tune is the sort of thing you could drop onto a mix CD and no one would ever guess it was Royal Trux. What's revealed by the song is that Herrema and Hagerty were either indeed brave experimenters in the rest of their work or were, to paraphrase another blogger's review of this record, "fucked up people making fucked up music for fucked up people."

Either way, this tune is the exception to their usual operating methods.

"Spike Cyclone" and "Vile Child" are good examples of the other end of the Trux spectrum, the one opposite that Nascimento cover. These are grimy, filthy workouts, like if you took the Stones and removed all the blues elements to reveal the remaining squalor. That the songs are not particularly tuneful doesn't matter. The grime is what matters.

A cover of Jefferson Airplane's "Law Man" lets that grime coalesce into a familiar shape. The 1971 tune is transformed into what could pass as a Trux original.

The essential "Shockwave Rider" sounds a tiny bit like what Primal Scream would do a few years later on XTRMNTR (2000), only without the electronics. It's funky, sinister, and catchy. One of the highlights of this record, actually.

"Womban" closes off Disc 1 in fitting fashion. This cover of an old Godz song is trippy, space-y, and spacious. The drum fills are a nice bit of jazzy business and Jennifer Herrema's background vocals sound nearly demonic. Here's proof that you can make sinister music that isn't loud. Gloriously deranged stuff.

The piano-led "Cut You Loose" opens the second half of this collection and the tune is nearly pretty in a Tom Waits-sort-of-way. Again, while Royal Trux seemed to have mastered that sort of Sonic Youth-meets-Stones vibe -- to paraphrase another review -- it was the stuff that didn't fit that easy description -- like this cut -- that was so enjoyable.

"Hero/Zero" and "Statik Jakl" are more experimental than noise rock. The clattering pots-and-pans percussion elements on the second track lend the song a nearly Asian vibe.

"Gett Off" is very Thurston Moore-like and, clearly, the band could have had more mainstream success if they had gotten their shit together. Still, the charm of Royal Trux was when their sloppiness slipped into genius. It's not the sloppiness of musicians who didn't care but, rather, the sloppiness in search of meaning. Fumbling in search of pop magic.

That magic is here. When the harmonica (?) kicks in, "Gett Off" turns into a different animal. As the song threatens to get catchy, it disintegrates again.

"Cleveland" is positively jaunty, perhaps thanks to Shimmy-Disc impresario Kramer's engineering work.

A strung-out cover of "Theme From 'M*A*S*H'" is a far-cry from the cover by the Manic Street Preachers that I like so much. Still, Hagerty's voice is well-suited to this tune and his guitar work is quite good here; there's a kick to those chords that contrasts with his nearly-slurred vocals.

From 1989 comes "Love Is..." which flits between Jennifer's squealing and the space-y keyboard (?) bits. The track holds together and is a pretty cool little nugget that shows another direction the band could have gone in. Nearly shoegaze in spots, "Love Is..." is a wailing affair, like a concise Loop cut with female vocals. When Hagerty's guitar overtakes the tune, things collapse gloriously and the pieces fade out.

The slight "Sometimes" betrays the debt the band owed to Sonic Youth. Still, Royal Trux brought a menace to this sort of music that Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore didn't always possess.

The aching piano-based "Signed, Confused" is -- vaguely -- Byrds-like. At least to my ears. It's the germ of something pretty. The song stretches out for nearly 6 minutes and it works. Keith Richards-meets-Dr. John. Languid and lazy, the cut still charms.

"Aviator Blues" was recorded at the band's last sessions for Drag City, according to the liner notes, and it's a fitting way to close this sprawling collection: blues rock meets space rock meets noise rock. Three eras, three genres, put in a blender by Herrema and Hagerty.

I'd be an idiot to pretend that this collection is organized in some logical way, or shows the progression of the band from ramshackle punks to alt-rock pros. No. It's a glorious mess. It rewards anyone with the time -- nearly 2 hours -- to sift through this stuff. There are a lot of gems here.

Singles, Live, Unreleased is a nice reminder of the 1990s and an era that wasn't all grunge or Britpop. Yes, there were bands that still took chances.

Risky, confrontational, and downright unsavory in spots, Royal Trux were at their unpredictable best on this 32-song compilation. Whatever side of the band you fancy, it's probably here on one of these sides.

Find more details about this release on the Drag City Records website.

Check your favorite online and real retailers for this reissue.

Singles, Live, Unreleased is out on November 8, 2011 via Drag City.

For a nice overview of the band, check out this site.