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Royal Trux singer Jennifer Herrema’s faux-fur coat has enough swagger in it to intimidate everyone this side of Jon Spencer. Of course, Royal Trux has always had swagger—enough, indeed, to be one of the first bands since the Sex Pistols to actually come out ahead in its dealings with a major label. Herrema and longtime companion and collaborator Neil Hagerty took Virgin’s money in 1994, bought some recording equipment and, the next year, released the not-poorly-received, but commercially disappointing, Thank You. 1997’s Sweet 16, which sported cover art as vile as its horrific attempt at the kind of ’70s noodle-rock you’d expect from Peter Frampton, was so awful to look at and listen to that Virgin quickly banished the group from its roster forever.
As cheerful a story as band-takes-money-from-megalabel, spends-money-wisely, gets-artistic-freedom-back is, it wouldn’t mean shit if Trux hadn’t commenced making records like the ones that had made it the critical darling of the early-’90s music underground. Back on the Chicago indie label Drag City, where it started, the band has now released the raunchy Veterans of Disorder, a solid effort at recapturing the sounds and style of its past.
Royal Trux has long been obsessed with ruining conventional structures in songs. Herrema and Hagerty take the best parts of classic rock, the fuck-you stance and the huge guitar riffs that overwhelm the audience, and strip out the catchy melodies and general desire to please rather than intimidate. On its early records, Trux assertively attacked conventional fans with unkempt song structures, guttural vocals, and dissonance ruling over melody, and attacked the punk crowd with guitar solos and a clear love for AOR. By spitting on all sides of the late-’80s and early-’90s music scenes, Trux invented its own following, one that thought the Stones could have been a great band if they hadn’t given up their balls trying to write pretty songs.
Having been in the art-school-poseur outfit Pussy Galore, Hagerty was already on this track before starting Trux. But the direction he went with Herrema, his girlfriend, if similar, was less ironic. The couple fell into drug abuse that seemed prodigious even by rock standards, and meandered around the country, recording song after terrifying song. Their relationship seems to have survived their subsequent climb onto the wagon, and their apparent love of making dissonant music seems to have made it as well, even after they were 86’d by a major label.
Besides having such a great backstory for the press kit, Hagerty and Herrema have a sincere fascination with the grease that collects on people who live just below society’s view—not to mention a penchant for getting a lot of that same grease all over themselves. Grease is good for authenticity; it makes their better songs sound just plain dirty. Neither Herrema nor Hagerty has ever given the impression that their shared drug history stemmed from a desire to act like rock stars; rather, from the second they first entered a studio together, their work was infused with the belief that they were rock stars—stars so huge that they don’t need record sales for validation. Thank You did sound like a sincere attempt to move units and build a career in the mainstream, but, unlike so many of their peers, they figured it wouldn’t happen—and released Sweet 16 seemingly just to make sure. And to get out of the recording contract.
Pursuing the blues via the Rolling Stones, Trux mixes dysfunctional vocals with guitar-jock heroics by Hagerty, whose long solos would tumble over into parody if they weren’t so good—most of the time. The two seem less inclined to assault the medium and the audience than they did during the time from 1989’s Twin Infinitives through 1993’s Cats and Dogs, but Disorder has enough hellfire rock and murdered-kitty vocals to both irritate some and mystify others.
Herrema’s singing style is so unconventional that it gets a little grating, particularly if you’re not used to it, but the star power of her appearance and demeanor, both in life and on record, is indisputable. Although she has been a Calvin Klein model, the band fired its manager after he suggested that she start dressing in tank tops and midriff-baring T’s a la Gwen Stefani. One listen to any Royal Trux record should have been enough to convince even the most idiotic huckster that this band would never sell like No Doubt—but it did get signed to Virgin, so maybe the manager was just trying too hard.
Billy Squier-like opening riffs aside, the first track, “Waterpark,” is just over two minutes of serious gutter rock. Herrema sings about going to visit some white-trash nirvana where she can get French braids in her hair and even acquire some tattoos—at least, I think that’s what she’s singing about. With Herrema, it’s all in the delivery: She channels Mick Jagger’s lips and hips through a combination of war-weary hooker sexuality and little-girl pouts. On “Second Skin,” her charisma holds the fast rock together with its arrogance and aloofness. On “Witch’s Tit,” a slow dirge filled with nostalgia, Herrema’s vocals, although not tender, seem backward-looking, while Hagerty builds a guitar groove that, if done by a band with any desire to sell, could have made for a hit.
Hagerty stars on the second track, “Stop”; his high singing voice and great falsetto peaks make the slow pop jam undulate, along with a wonderful keyboard tinkle that culminates in a cheery guitar solo. The track sounds perfect for a summer in the mid-’70s.
Although the group’s pop sense rules through tracks like “Waterpark” and “Stop,” Herrema and Hagerty cannot just write pop songs; they have to make an unholy racket at least part of the time. Disorder supplies the noise-filled experiments that have highlighted much of their previous work. “Yo Se!” weaves a soundscape through guitar effects that glimmer and shine while Herrema and Hagerty yell the title over and over again. The repetition builds a groove whose overall effect isn’t soothing. In fact, I’m not sure that the track isn’t totally irritating, but it does draw you in.
The most experimental track, “SickAzz Dog,” amounts to a whirlwind of samples: Herrema’s shouted counting alongside synthesizer, distorted violins, and an ocarina. The song structure leaves early on to make way for the samples and noises, only to make a few brief returns—which is all you owe the track.
Trux seems to have returned to a high comfort level with Disorder. It would have been easy to write the band off as burned-out after the debacle of Sweet 16, but it seems that, by returning to Drag City, Herrema and Hagerty have recovered both their roots and their muse. The question of whether they can be a viable major-label band is settled, but now so is the bigger question of whether bands that have left the underground can return to make music as vibrant as they did before the money arrived. CP