Album review: Royal Trux – Platinum Tips + Ice Cream (live)
by Thomas Blake
Some acts exist within the broad framework of ‘rock’ or ‘pop’ music but stretch the edges of those defining terms so far that their creations are unrecognisable to the unaccustomed listener. They do not so much defy the conventions of genre as annihilate them. I’m thinking the Velvet Underground in full-on ‘Sister Ray’ mode, the whole of Trout Mask Replica, the Fall at their scariest, Diamanda Galas, Throbbing Gristle and their henchpersons, Faust’s debut. There are a few of them about. A rarer beast, though, is the band that can reach those bleak sonic outposts by feeding purely off the culture that they transcend. Sonic Youth maybe got close but always seemed to come back to the form that begat them. But when Royal Trux had finished stripping the carcass of rock and roll, they crushed up the bones, snorted them and then went looking for more.
With their self-titled debut and in particular its 1990 follow-up, Twin Infinitives, Jennifer Herrema and Neil Michael Hagerty created a thrilling shit-soup, a hot mess of deconstructed rock tropes and drug-mangled pop culture references. What followed was a career of brilliance and narcotic lunacy (they were once dropped by a record label for allegedly spending their entire album advance on smack) that came to an end in 2001 when Hagerty and Herrema, who had been a couple since the late 80s, split up.
After some pretty successful reincarnations – Herrema as RTX and more recently the Black Bananas, Hagerty as The Howling Hex – they got it together again in 2016 for long enough to play a handful of gigs. Platinum Tips + Ice Cream is an amalgamation of performances in New York and California, but its artful sequencing and minimal mastering mean it plays out like a single, short, and often thrilling show.
What is instantly striking – and perhaps somewhat surprising to new listeners or those who haven’t listened to the band in a while – is just how good these two were at writing memorable rock and roll tunes. Opener ‘Junkie Nurse’, from their untitled third LP, comes on with the swagger of the New York Dolls and a dirty groove that any of today’s garage rock bands would kill for. It’s a million miles away from the raw, Big Star-channelling original, which itself was a massive departure from their previous work. ‘Sewers of Mars’, from 1995’s Thank You, contains quieter passages that creep with menace and verses full of boogie. But the band’s penchant for deconstruction and musical self-harm means that even when they are mining the glittering seam of 70s rock-era Rolling Stones they sound like they’ve been beamed in from a dirty, deathly future.
Herrema’s voice was never a thing of ripe beauty or sweet clarity, and here she is every bit the addled urban banshee. Her squeaks and grunts at the start of the churning ‘Red Tiger’ seem designed to explicitly mock the overblown vocal delivery of generations of unselfconscious male rock superstars. When she shares space or trades places with Hagerty, as on the brief but strangely exploratory ‘Sometimes’ or the comparatively conventional ‘Mercury’, it is as if the listener has stumbled on an alternative universe where Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham were kidnapped by anarchists and made to live in a sewer and eat gravel instead of going into rehab.
The duo were always able to create a great deal of noise without much in the way of outside input, and here they are augmented by Tim Barnes (drums) and Brian McKinley (bass). The two do a great job on the crunching grunge of ‘Esso Dame’, while on ‘Deafer Than Blind’ you can hear the band progressing from loose rehearsal-style jam to locked-in psychy fuzz in the course of about three minutes.
Part of the Royal Trux appeal was their ability to turn their hand to anything as long as they were allowed to fuck it up and make it strange, and here they have applied that talent to their own back catalogue. ‘Waterpark’ becomes a kind of surf-rock anthem from hell, ‘Platinum Tips’ regurgitates its southern rock riff and revels in the extra coating of scuzz it has acquired over time. Best of all is Twin Infinitives favourite ‘Ice Cream’, rendered as an almost unrecognisable slab of future-funk, covered in puddles of gloopy noise.
Royal Trux were always different. Different from their peers, and different from themselves. Their music was art: pure and filthy. In this respect at least, they haven’t changed. Platinum Tips + Ice Cream won’t stand as a monument to their work, but what’s the point in making a monument to something so vital and so alive?
Platinum Tips + Ice Cream is released by Drag City on June 16th