Available on: Drag City LP
I love Jennifer Herrema. In this age of rockers (and everyone else) being obsessed with brand identity, suing Maybelline for infringing on their intellectual property, and many veteran bands being reduced to a front-person and various ‘employees’, it’s a relief to find such a free spirit as Jen, who decided to change the name of her band because, well, why not? So, what was RTX, itself springing from the mind of one half of Royal Trux, is now… Black Bananas?
What do Black Bananas sound like, then? Unsurprisingly, they sound a bit like RTX, that monster of psychoactive 1980s glam-psyche rock-gone-modern madness. Except, where RTX was at least relatively strict in its rock structures and themes, Black Bananas are more Royal Trux in that anything can and does go.
Take ‘RTX Gogo’, the fifth song on the album. Its massive wah bassline brings to mind the glory days of George Clinton and Bootsy Collins (sampled, of course, on RTX’s ‘Resurrect’), but then you get some ‘whoa-whoa-whoa’-ing that comes straight out of the KISS ‘I Love it Loud’ playbook. Then some nursery rhyme melodies. If, that is, your nursery teacher had rather too much cough medicine and was prone to acid flashbacks.
In fact, at that point, the album goes on a run of dirty, buzzing, basslines and staggers about the place with all the decorum of Ravel Morrison off his tag. ‘Do It’ and ‘Rad Times’ both have a Hendrix-gone-hideously-awry feel about them, but to the extent that it’s so awry it becomes weirdly… wry. No way are Black Bananas going to be mistaken for The Weeknd in the zeitgeist capturing stakes, but there is a similarly woozy, wtf was in my drink last night, but immaculately produced, feel to Rad Times Xpress IV.
After that dalliance with the funk, the band returns to more familiar territory with ‘My House’. Funny thing about this transition. When listening to the first half of the album, the veteran of RTX will likely think it a familiar experience. It rocks, it’s composed with brilliance while also sounding almost entirely shambolic (and that will be a deal breaker to many; it can sound like a mess if your head isn’t in the right place. It took a good six or seven listens of randomness to click with this reviewer), and Jennifer is as charismatic and cool as ever. But it’s only when you hear the palm-muted staccato riffing on ‘My House’ that you realise this is the actual sound of the RTX you’re used to, and it sounds nothing like the seven songs that have just been on. Yes, Black Bananas manage that ridiculously difficult feat of changing your sound up pretty massively without the whole thing feeling like a jarring shift in aesthetic.
Seriously, go back to RTX’s magical debut Transmaniacon, or even last album JJ Got Live RaTX, and the metal on there – fucked up and groggy as it was – is so much more pronounced on past records than it is here. More cock rock? Nah, actually. Psychedelic funk sludge. That I wasn’t blown away by such a development speaks volumes for both the artistic palette Jennifer and her ex Neil Michael Hagerty worked with in Trux, and just how unburdened she is by expectation and genre Jen has been since that duo acrimoniously split.
‘TV Trouble’ is the trash rock counterpoint to Black Flag’s ‘TV Party’ that the world may not have been crying out for over the last three decades, but that it really should have, as this cry for help in the face of a hundred channels is bizarrely touching. Album closer ‘Killer Weed’ looks at super powers’ attempts at empire building in the middle east through the filter of cannabis deals: “I once tried something from Afghanistan / Before the Russians came and fumigated the land / I don’t want your money, I’ll just take your soul.” That’s when the song provides us with one of the music world’s great paradoxes: what would Fugazi sound like on drugs?
I won’t lie – drugs seem to be the primary motivating factor here. ‘Night Walker’, before the stadium drums kick in, sounds like it’s about to break into some acid house, a la techno survivalists/revivalists The Black Dog. Elsewhere, we get riffs of the weed-soaked solidity of prime Black Sabbath. Perhaps there is a method in the madness of the new band name. Could it be there is a grand narrative at work, whereby that veteran Herrema is taking us on a history trip through the finer bands whose names begin with ‘Black’? Highly doubtful, but it’s certainly a fun coincidence. Far more likely though, is that Rad Times Xpress IV is just the result of a rock savant getting together with her pals to get toasted and kick out the jams. And when the result is a cross between The Stooges, Sa-Ra and a bizarro world Prince who discovered crack instead of Jehova, I’m not complaining.