Still rock like the coolest kids at the high school talent show.
Long before the early-aughts garage-rock revival—before the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, before The Kills, before The White Stripes—there was Royal Trux, the unholy union of Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema, the offspring of Jon Spencer’s pre-Blues Explosion band, the legendarily scuzzy Pussy Galore.
Royal Trux’s music is known for its looseness and viscerality, reminiscent of Exile-era Stones as well as a clear precursor to celebrated contemporary acts like Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall, among others. In 2016, an article from the San Francisco Chronicle memorably described them as “snarling bummer blues,” an apt characterization worth repeating.
The band released ten albums between 1988 and 2000, though the last was cobbled together from recordings from the ‘80s. My personal favorites are Twin Infinitives (the first full-length album released by Drag City), Cats and Dogs, and Veterans of Disorder. Their latest, Platinum Tips + Ice Cream, collects twelve live recordings from two recent shows in California and New York City, with songs culled from most periods of their career.
Given that their last album came out nearly 20 years, it would seem the point of the release is mostly to remind people of Royal Trux’s accomplishments, tease future band activity and to show they can still perform well together—in those respects, the disc certainly succeeds.
Hagerty and Harrema sound comfortable together, squealing and screeching their way through distorted grooves that wear their ‘70s influences on their sleeve. Indeed, I found, on this listen, that the more “traditional” elements felt more compelling than the songs that seemed to stand on attitude alone.
“Sewers of Mars,” from 1995’s Thank You, is one of the stand-outs, as is “Mercury,” a single released in 1994, and “Deafer Than Blind,” from 1998’s 3-Song EP. The heavier moments work quite well, too, whether in “Sometimes” or “Waterpark”—Herrema’s take-no-prisoners affect and Hagerty’s artfully unkempt guitar-playing and unabashed love of riffs are still a winning combination.
My favorites by far, however, were the two last songs on the disc, which are also the two longest.
“Blue Is the Frequency” is perhaps the strongest of the bunch, lyrically and dynamically, with its genre-bending, bluesy, jazzy, hard rock fusion, which starts off as a mellow stoner jam and then takes off into a lengthy guitar freak-out, like Royal Trux doing their idea of “Maggot Brain.” At five-and-a-half minutes, it is significantly shorter than its nearly nine-minute running time on 1999’s Veterans of Disorder, but it lasts long enough to show off what Hagerty is capable off when he really takes to the skies.
The closer, “Ice Cream,” from 1990’s Twin Infinitives, is a spacy jam with the echo on Herrema’s voice sounding like a transmission from way out, occasionally punctuated by a guitar lick or jazzy chord that sounded Malkmusian to my ears, though in all likelihood the influence runs both ways. The song doesn’t go anywhere, and doesn’t need to—it jitters its way to a close, only to give way to deserving applause.
It’s a little strange to revive interest in a band by releasing a live album of old material showing they’ve still got it. But in this case it’s heartening to know Royal Trux can still rock like the coolest kids at the high school talent show.