It’s easy to imagine Royal Trux forming in the late ’80s after thumbing their noses at the rock ‘n’ roll carrion that surrounded them. Somehow Jennifer Herrema and Neil Haggerty managed to dredge some new life from the wilting corpse of the genre, creating a series of compelling and frequently amusing balls-to-the-wall rock albums such as Thank You, Cats & Dogs, and Accelerator.
The dissolution of their personal and creative partnership in 2001 found Herrema and Haggerty slicing the Trux pie neatly down the middle. Haggerty pocketed all the experimental joi de vivre that prevented the band from courting the mainstream, even during its ill-fated stint on Virgin during the grunge era. Herrema made off with her rasping howl and penchant for metal, shaping the RTX sound into the aural equivalent of a groggy gasoline huff.
Despite the title, JJ Got Live RaTX isn’t a live album. Instead it’s a third studio record from Herrema and her meaty backing band, who deliver a relentless cavalcade of stodgy riffs and solos over the singer’s Marlboro wheeze. “You Should Shut Up” opens the album in a dolorous pot-smoke haze and buried vocodered vocals. A substantial riff from guitarist Jaimo Welch briskly quashes the song’s fleeting promise, and Herrema belts out a trademark pissed-off vocal that lands the album in very familiar territory.
It’s hard to see where else Herrema could take RTX. She’s not about to deliver a techno opus (although the fleeting Moroder-esque ending to “Mr.Wall” might raise an eyebrow or two) and nor should she try. Her spiritual home is hanging out with the kids before the Judas Priest show in Heavy Metal Parking Lot. She’s so smitten with the base mechanics of rock ‘n’ roll that she even allows Welch to weld a hokey “Johnny B. Goode” riff onto “Are You a Boy or a Girl?” The song is immediately followed, with immaculate pacing, by the album’s obligatory cigarette-lighter-aloft song, “Cheap Wine Time.”
The type of trad anthemic rock that Herrema is peddling needs to find an audience beyond the dank indie environs she continues to trudge through. Her music might catch a spark when played before a cavernous arena populated by woozy bonged-out teens, but a perusal of the current RTX tour schedule finds the band playing at Cake Shop on New York’s Lower East Side — a venue that barely holds more than 100 people. Herrema’s less experimental musical ventures are courting a much smaller audience than the rockist esoteria she chiseled into shape with Haggerty, and as JJ Got Live RaTX ends with a strychnine pile of go-nowhere riffs, solos and half-hearted sing-alongs, it’s not hard to see why.