Two Discussions Loosely Tied To The Greatness of Royal Trux
1. In Which Sasha Frere-Jones Is Wrong, Sort Of
Back in 2007, The New Yorker‘s Sasha Frere-Jones caused a bit of stir when he claimed that indie rock didn’t have enough black influence, that it had essentially left the miscegenation (and resulting excitement of sound) of rock ‘n’ roll behind. Okay, so his example began with Arcade Fire — which, particularly circa Neon Bible is a flawed one — and he seems to ignore the second half of Pavement’s career, but let’s be honest: Sasha Frere-Jones was on to something. Indie rock has gotten awfully white, and (sure) some of that started back in the ’90s. Of course, dude had no idea he’d be dealing with the blinding paleness of shit like chillwave, but that’s another story.
The bigger point here isn’t about what Frere-Jones said about influence, but more about his conclusions as to where this shift came from. He claims the democracy of the internet meant all voices were equal and, thus, black performers got as much exposure (perhaps more post-The Chronic) as white performers, but maybe Frere-Jones was barking up the wrong tree. If the internet, and the insularity of indie-rock culture in the ’90s before it, is responsible for the shift, it’s that this democracy has watered down and obscured history. With everything available to us all the time, context loses its meaning and there is less difference between the band that came out yesterday and the band that came out ten years ago. As the speed with which music is made available to us increases, our consumption of it becomes fleeting as well.
A similar thing happened before the internet, even before the ’90s, and it has to do with romanticising the obscure. As Frere-Jones points out, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards bonded over “obscure” records. In the ’90s, bands like Pavement were applauded for being an alternative to the mainstream, so part of their appeal came in the fact that not that many people (relatively speaking) knew about them. This not only appealed to fans, but to upcoming bands as well and, especially in the wake of Nevermind, the scramble for bands became not to tap into the rock and roll tradition, but to sound like the other band rehearsing down the street.
As a result, indie rock needed a new set of outliers, bands like Royal Trux. If there’s a band that contradicts Frere-Jones’s idea that black music had faded from ’90s rock, it’s Royal Trux, especially on the bluesy stomp of 1995’s Thank You. Jessica Herrema’s vocals were dragged-through-the-mud beautiful, Neil Hagerty’s guitar riffs blistered and peeled. These were songs drenched in sweat, and Dan Brown, Chris Pyle, and Robbie Armstrong — the band’s rhythm section — gave these songs a sinister swing. There isn’t a more ragged and wonderful brand of funk than you’re likely to find on “Night to Remember” or the soulful “Map of the City.” Epic closer “Shadow of the Wasp” channels all the garage-rock edge of the band into it’s biggest dose of deep-roots rock and roll. The waves of distortion of very much mid-’90s fare, but the chooglin’ under it is timeless.
Royal Trux had a longer view than the bands around it, which was what allowed them to build this sound. It’s one of many rock permutations they explore in their discography, and the players are no strangers to rock tradition (while in Pussy Galore, Neil Hagerty convinced the band to record a full-album cover of Exile on Main Street). They could do this because they didn’t care about trends, or about cashing in — even if they were signed to Virgin to bait other bands of their ilk to sign as well — but rather to explore, to find new wrinkles in rock ‘n’ roll to explore. The bands that continue to do this can see the forest for the trees. Sounds don’t get hidden in plain view in the glut of digital music on the internet, and back in the ’90s Royal Trux had been where the bands around them were just learning to go. They wanted something else, something new, and to do that they went back to the rock ‘n’ roll vaults. Plenty of bands didn’t do this, and plenty of fans went along — this is part of Frere-Jones’s point — but if you’re looking for a funky counterpoint, check Thank You.
2. In Which A Friend And I Discuss Bon Iver
Last summer, as Bon Iver was released, a friend and I spoke on and off about the divisive last song on that record, the adult contemporary sheen of “Beth/Rest.” I, for one, am no fan of the song, and don’t care much for the tradition it rises out of. In fact, I have a general problem with the current delusion pop music is under that pop-rock from ’80s is in any way rewarding.
However, my friend continued to pose an interesting question, one I can’t quite shake off. What he asked was this: Who says that sound has to die? Who decides that it’s not worthy of going on?
Royal Trux seems to have a similar question on Thank You. Is it the funkiest indie rock record of the ’90s? Absolutely. But beyond that, it also revisits many strands of rock music — strands the arch indie-rock world wanted to leave behind — and reimagines them. “Granny Grunt” is based on the kind of jock-jam, classic-rock-lite usually relegated to mid-level films set in the ’70s. “Ray O Vac” sounds like Pretzel Logic-era Steely Dan. “Map of the City” is as close to a mid-’80s power ballad as any indie band would dare to go.
Of course, none of these sound exactly like Jock Jams or Steely Dan or power ballads. Where Bon Iver goes for faithful Hornsby jam, Royal Trux scuff up everything in their purview. But the point is that Herrema and Hegarty saw value in just about every sound, and Thank You is a brilliant exploration of the warts-and-all history of rock and roll. As it turns out, the path to indie rock wasn’t just the cool stuff we remember, there’s bits of the schlock mixed in there too. Royal Trux reminded us of that, and showed us how making that schlock dingy and frayed was the only true way to make it shine. It’s not about letting sounds die, in the end, but rather about giving them new life. Maybe they should have called this album You’re Welcome instead.
Jessica Herrema’s new band, Black Bananas, has an album — Rad Times XPress IV — out now. Check it out.