Friday, August 3, 2007

ROYAL TRUX, Thank You (Virgin)
LAUGHING HYENAS, Hard Times (Touch & Go)
Spin, 1995

Where could US underground rock 'go', after Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation reached the outer-limits of 'reinvention of the guitar'? Why, back to 'the source', of course--black R&B (and the late '60s/early 70s white appropriations thereof), in a quest to relearn the lost fundamentals of 'groove' and 'feel'. Hence the backwards journey taken by a new breed of blues fundamentalists like The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Come and Mule (formed, coincidentally, by two refugees from Laughing Hyenas). I can only marvel at the timelag syndrome that bedevils Amerindie's relationship with black music: unlike British bands, US rockers only seem comfortable venerating African-American pop when it's dead and buried, e.g. Big Chief vis-a-vis early Funkadelic. Doubtless, we'll have to wait twenty years before the US underground wakes up to the booty-coercing futurism of SWV, Craig Mack and Underground Resistance.

Just to make sure we know exactly where they're coming from, Laughing Hyenas namecheck Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker in interviews, and insert the word 'blues' into not one but TWO songs on their new LP--'Hard Time Blues', with
its risible "I bin down since I could crawl" line, and the maudlin, country-inflected "Home of the Blues". The Hyenas used to be a noise-core outfit, whose sole distinguishing feature was the flamethrower vocals of John Brannon (who used
to sear ears in the ultra-taut hardcore unit Negative Approach). Despite their blues affectations, the Hyenas purvey what used to be called 'high-octane rock'n'roll', firmly rooted in the late '60s sound of their native Detroit;
Brennon now sounds like Iggy if he'd been fixated on Jagger rather than Jim Morrison.

While the band can't swing for toffee, they do rumble effectively. But Brannon's slurred roar ('take me fo' a ride', 'reach out yo' han'', ad nauseam) has less to do with Robert Johnson than with The Stooges of "I'm Sick Of You" and "Not Right". If heavily-amplified, fuzzed-to-fuck self-pity is your particular cup of poison, drink deep. Me, I'll take my blooze bastardisation from those who take Ozzy rather than Muddy as blues-print, i.e. Alice In Chains (who could really make something of Hyena titles like 'Slump' and 'Each Dawn I Die').

Like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (that other offshoot of garage-skronk pioneers Pussy Galore), Royal Trux have at least earned the right to go atavistic. Having proved they can push the envelope (with the drug-damaged lo-fi chaos theorems of Twin Infinitives and the Exile on Main Street filtered through Daydream Nation of Cats and Dogs), it's only fair that Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema should be allowed to contract their raunch'n'roll to fit the contours of Black Crowes-style retro. On their major label debut Thank You, Trux retain the supple boogie glide of "Thorn In My Pride", the baleful thrust of "Remedy", but purge the hokey Humble Pie over-emoting that makes Crowes stick in craw. Thank You is Sticky-Fingeredto the max, its sinewy riffs, grinding bass and seething percussion harking back to 'Can't You Hear Me Knockin'?". What sets Trux leages above and beyond Laughing Hyenas is that they funk, in that fierce white-boy fashion that early '70s rock had down pat, but which punk extinguished when it replaced syncopation with thud-thud-thud.

Song-wise, Royal Trux don't really write tunes so much as riffs; Hagerty & Herrema's elegantly wasted unison drawl functions as a vocal equivalent to rhythm guitar, just another twist'n'tug factor in the all-important groove. Herrema's haggard croon (you can practically hear the nodes forming on her distressed larynx) is at its vicious best on "You're Gonna Lose"--offset by Hagerty's gloating backing
chorus, she expectorates the venomous put-downs, and proves herself one of the best "bad" singers since Alice Cooper circa "Elected". Overall, though, what with lyrics that are as incomprehensibly Philip K. Dick-like as ever, Thank You isn't about songs and singing, but grooves and guitar. The album was produced by David Briggs (who worked on many of Neil Young's '70s albums), and appropriately Hagerty's short solo on "Map Of The City" has a jalapeno-sting redolent of
'Southern Man'. Generally, Hagerty avoids the gaseous, mirage-like soloing that made 'Cats and Dogs' such a gloriously narcotic haze, and concentrates on a rhythm/lead hybrid that's tres Keef.

Best comes last with the aformentioned 'You're Gonna Lose' and the snakehipped, sultry 'Shadow of the Wasp'. The highest praise you can offer Thank You is that it's like time travel. While this ultimately underlines the inadequacy of the Amerindie state-of-art (basically antiquarianism, or at best, lo-fi's retro-eclecticism), it also indicates that Royal Trux have made a muthafunkin' fine record.


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