When the peripatetic Royal Trux — a revolving cast led by Pussy Galore expatriate Neil Hagerty and junkie priestess-turned-Calvin Klein model Jennifer Herrema — talks about wanting to emulate the Rolling Stones, they’re not articulating a desire to pantomime an nth-generation version of Exile on Main St. They’re doing their level best to fashion a reprobate hybrid of Altamont evil and Marrakesh mind-fog. And more often than not, they succeed.
The duo’s earliest work presented them as a sort of a narcoleptic Sonny and Cher, disseminating the doctrine of “better” living through chemistry on a scale that would earn a 21-gun salute from Bill Burroughs. The self-titled debut is so staggeringly disjointed that you want to give Hagerty and Herrema the benefit of the doubt and presume they were trying to capture a musical form of cut-up creativity wherein they recorded “songs” and then snipped the master tapes apart, allowing fate to decide how the slivers would reassemble. Although most of the album’s pieces build a carpet of lumpy, arrhythmic percussion, absolutely nothing else lingers long enough to give listeners even a momentary foothold: “Bad Blood” bristles briefly with spikes of guitar invective before nestling in a cocoon of distracted acoustic noodling. “Jesse James” juxtaposes random hollers that could well have been captured by dangling a microphone out a tenement window. Whether Royal Trux is an elaborate joke or an art-brut monument is in the ear of the beholder.
That said, the epic Twin Infinitives (initially a double-vinyl release) makes its predecessor sound like the product of a crack (no pun intended) Brill Building songwriting team. While reminiscent of Trout Mask Replica in its apparent real-time recording and off-the-cuff melodic lexicon (a feature hammered home by Herrema’s slurry, somnolent delivery — she’s at her spookiest on “Ice Cream” and the fractious “Jet Pet”), an array of cheap synths mimic the sensory overload of a strip-mall video arcade (“Solid Gold Tooth”). But that’s just the half of it: tape-speed manipulations, toy-store instrumentation, blues harp and pornographic moans fade in and out, colliding head-on during the relentless 14-minute opus “(Edge of the) Ape Oven.” Twin Infinitives is one of those rare albums that will sound as utterly damaged and as wholly out of place years after the day of its release.
The coherence with which Hagerty picks out the opening chords of “Air,” the hazily psychedelic opener of the band’s second untitled album (no doubt less an affectation than a genuine product of the memory loss surrounding the recording of the first one) marks a sea change in the realm of Royal Trux. The 1992 album is studded with enough bona fide rock songs (like the choogling “Move”) to make it seem as if Royal Trux had inverted the ’60s blueprint by getting its bloated rock operas out of the way before venturing into commerciality. Hagerty delivers the disc’s most affecting moment in the squatter-blues hymn “Junkie Nurse,” but the collective weight of Herrema’s seductive, languid vocals (a perfect complement to her slo-mo stage stalking) mark her as a star in the making. Cats and Dogs brings additional musicians into the picture for the first time (in the conventional sense, that is; calling Twin Infinitives‘ guests “musicians” would be stretching things), and the forced fraternization helps bring out some heretofore concealed — if rudimentary — social skills. Both “Teeth” and the agreeably tough-talking “Let’s Get Lost” sound as if their notation is carved, if not in stone, at least in something a bit more fixed than oatmeal. Heck, “Skywood Greenback Mantra” could almost pass for a biker-bar jukebox rave.
That raunchy flavor permeates the band’s major-label debut, Thank You — one of the last productions by the late David Briggs, a veteran of many Neil Young sessions — which positively oozes unreconstructed rock-star hoodoo. A marked Southern rock skew is evident on songs like “(Have You Met) Horror James?” and the no-nonsense boogie of “You’re Gonna Lose,” a turn of events that stems in part from the presence of drummer Chris Pyle (whose dad Artimus was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s drummer), and even more from Herrema’s increasingly Joplinesque rasp. Although the band’s new course can be stultifying (the repetitious “Ray O Vac” is one exercise in self-flagellation that doesn’t bear waiting out), Royal Trux has carved a profoundly gritty niche on whatever planet it is they’re transmitting from.
Sweet Sixteen finds the Trux further exploring dirt-under-the-nails Southern rock with slightly less agreeable results. A compromise between the (relatively) straight-ahead rock structures of their Virgin debut and the mayhem preceding it, Sweet Sixteen still reveals moments of genius embedded in the mess of guitars, death-rattle vocals and tortured synthesizers. The road anthem “Roswell Seeds and Stems” is a marriage of Grateful Dead/Commander Cody insouciance and a flat-out gonzo weirdness all their own. “Morphic Resident,” meanwhile, is the most clearly articulated synthesis of old and new school Royal Trux, Herrema’s throaty howl battling the tide of Haggerty’s squalling guitar to a standstill. Ultimately, however, the album suffers from a lack of focus; having opted for a full-frontal rock assault, the band is at a loss to keep up with newly created expectations, the songwriting taking a back seat to attitude.
Failing to meet whatever commercial expectations their corporate benefactor may have had had, Royal Trux returned to Drag City for Accelerator. The opening roar of “I’m Ready” fulfills the promise of its crudely drawn cover art (a cloven hoof pressing down on a gas peddle, a furry hand gripping the steering wheel). Having shaken any lingering fog, the band is in full command, opting for stripped-down rock salvos aimed at the gut rather than sustained carpet-bombing of the brain. Of the nine songs (which clock in at about 35 minutes total), the longest, “Juicy Juicy Juice,” is a five-minute rhythmic ode to desire as powerful (and inscrutable) as anything produced in rock. Songs like “The Banana Question” make similar points more succinctly, while “The Yellow Kid” and “Stevie” actually pass for ballads (of a very odd sort), indicating that the Trux are becoming more comfortable in their new guise as a “legitimate” rock band. A promising return to the indie fold that suggests the band got more from its tenure in the big leagues than the big leagues did.
Veterans of Disorder realizes the full potential of the band’s alien-human hybrid sound. Though the typically wigged-out guitars are present (and augmented by some deranged organ on songs like “Witch’s Tit”), percussion is the essential element, as the drum boogie of “The Exception” and “Lunch Money” propels the band to a new level of rock excess/parody/tribute/deflation. The last three tracks resurrect the ghost of Royal Trux past and send it in new directions, relying on sound collage and kitchen-sink musical flourishes (a “snake charmer” and wood flute on “Coming Out Party”). “SickAzz Dog” slows the momentum, its tape manipulations and overdubs of Herrema spitting out numbers a deconstruction of the Beatles’ “Revolution 9.” A piece to listen to while the pot brownies cool.
Pound for Pound is a more muted effort that recalls some of the dissipation of Sweet Sixteen. The opening “Call Out the Lions” sets a sedate tone and moderate pace that is gradually heightened over the subsequent two tracks. The more reflective mood is obliterated completely by “Accelerator (the Original),” as good old Royal Trux ugliness rears its head one more time, with Herrema demanding, “Show me you can take a punch.” Elsewhere it’s their usual bag of tricks, concocting a Jefferson Airplane-ish guitar doodle with the extended jam of “Deep Country Sorcerer.” On “Small Thief” the band opens a new door, a Curtis Mayfield style funk that answers the question: what if the Stones had closed out the ’70s with their chops intact and a post-coma Marianne Faithfull sharing lead with Mick? The album’s centerpiece, “Sunshine and Grease,” is a distillation of hopeless yearning that is the essence of rock and roll. When Haggerty and Herrema alternately sing, “You were just a summer love, but I’ll remember you when winter comes,” you understand that this is nostalgia for a passing fancy turned into obsession for a way of life. In light of the band’s dissolution after the album’s release, the song can be read both as a love letter to rock and a farewell note to fans. A fittingly bittersweet conclusion to Royal Trux’s complicated relationship with a musical world they never made.