Friday, September 1

Theme Elementary School Psycho (Ax in Y Bad Boy BBM)

Since Sunday my free time has been occupied by the late, great Royal Trux, starting with a viewing of their baffling video from 1990, What Is Royal Trux?—the question in the title never comes close to being answered—and a straight-from-the-board bootleg of a 1992 concert in Orlando. (One of no more than twenty people present, I saw the group play a few days earlier in Gainesville, which was one of the most haunting performances I’ve ever witnessed.) This week I’ve revisited most of their recorded material, which is vast and varied. Royal Trux is one of the few bands in independent rock that never settled into a signature sound, though the voices of the band’s core duo, Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema, are unmistakably distinctive. Every album, single, and EP has a different sound and are quite impossible to describe fully; “art-damaged junkie blues” is a flawed but somewhat accurate attempt. The mythology surrounding the band—blowing their record advance on heroin, always-impenetrable lyrics, paranoia—is the stuff of indie-rock legends. But it’s apparent in What Is that the band, even while full-blown junkies, seemed to be in total control of their music and their image. From a New York Times review in 1992 a couple weeks after I first saw them play:
It’s not easy to play a full set that is on the verge of falling apart but never does. Royal Trux did just that. The two guitarists, who tuned during the set but rarely matched on intonation, played lines and chords that seemed to stumble together, somehow supporting each other. Songs like “Junkie Nurse” provide a druggy text for the music. In the music’s haze, Royal Trux knows what it’s doing: fighting through fogged senses to say something it expects no one to hear.
To my ears the early double album Twin Infinitives is one of the most out-there records ever made, and the song “Back to School” is one of my favorites. Until this week I never realized how the post-Virgin album Accelerator (1998) is probably the band’s most cohesive and strongest album (though not the best), coming just after what I consider their two disasterous records on a major-label. About the first of these bombs, Thank You, which I rebought today:
Some called it brilliant, some called it idiotic. (That was kind of the point.) After a mess of critically deified (or reviled) underground albums, nobody could figure out if “Thank You” was a sellout or a prank, a joke on Virgin Records or the fans or both. Herrema became a Calvin Klein model. Everyone was confused.
The album still sounds as bad as it did ten years ago save the two singles, but most everything else the band did sounds brilliant, even when things were at their most precarious. It’s impossible to judge the overall influence of this band on anyone else. What always impressed me the most, besides the complexity of the music itself, was the band’s singular drive to make music for no one but themselves. There may have been missteps but never compromise.

Hagerty’s solo project, first called Neil Michael Hagerty and now the Howling Hex, comes to New York September 14 at the Mercury Lounge. His last performance in town about a year ago was disappointing, not to mention odd: Hagerty changed shirts behind a painted bedsheet that was hung onstage no less than four times as his band vamped through four or five 15-minute-long songs that all but sounded exactly the same. But previous shows were mindblowing, as the masterful guitarist soloed through nearly every song. And like Royal Trux, Hagerty’s work since that band has been in constant flux.

Today I also bought the Hex’s out-of-print CD/DVD You Can’t Beat Tomorrow. Just put the video on now.


de Selby said...

I enjoyed the Howling Hex performance last year at the Knitting Factory. I really liked the lame costume changes and those moments when Hagerty would sit behind those hippie curtains for a breather (or whatever he was doing). And what about that strange video?

Anonymous said...

I thought the stage show was entertaining, but the music was below par--I don't even think Hagerty was swinging for the ball. The newish DVD is pretty strange: animation done with hand-drawn artwork and nonsequiter video images, all interspersed with the Howling Hex jamming on a single song.