Rhythm & Views


Most songwriting partnerships never live up to expectations when the partners decide to go their separate ways. (Wings, anyone?) Upholding this pattern are Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty, the nucleus of '90s indie anti-darlings Royal Trux, whose free-jazz approach to Stonesian boogie and swagger made them the original Gutter Twins. Since their split, both parties have kept their respective fires burning--but their trajectories couldn't be any more different.

Herrema has settled into the cozy confines of '80s arena rock à la Ratt, Motley Crue, Def Leppard, et al., by finding the gnarliest-looking dudes who could shred and turning everything up to 11. One could hear elements of this in her former band's later records, but Royal Trux always seemed to be doing everything in their power to separate the riff from the chaff, if you will. Nonetheless, JJ Got Live RaTX (a studio concoction, despite its title) continues this approach with its slabs of rawk, equipped with Herrema's patented tough run through more effects pedals than a Nels Cline workshop.

"You Should Shut Up" pretty much sets the tone from the get-go. Imagine Joan Jett fronting Def Leppard, and you'll get the gist. "Mr. Wall," where Herrema repeats one verse over and over about a creepy high school teacher, even reminds me of Jett's snotty teenage years with Lita Ford in The Runaways, which is not a bad thing at all.

It's style over substance, for sure, but it's got to be a chore to write a record that sounds heavily indebted to a sound and era without coming off like a tribute band--and Herrema and company have done just that.

In his time since pulling the plug on Royal Trux, Neil Michael Hagerty has been anything but predictable. After a few albums under his own name, Hagerty started the Howling Hex as, seemingly, a way to hide behind the music and let it speak for itself. It also marked a more experimental shift, with each successive album featuring different players and themes. Heck, Hagerty, as gifted of a guitarist as he is, even switched to bass a few albums back. How's that for taking one for the team?

While previous releases have focused on the near-hypnotic repetition of riffs and jams, and 2007's XI was straight-up boogie, Junk takes a wide turn by removing drums and bass, adding organ, and putting Hagerty back on guitar.

Sweney Tidball's Hammond B3 organ tends to dominate on most of the 10 tracks (and makes you wonder how much time he's spent on merry-go-rounds and/or in early-'80s pizza joints), especially album-opener "Big Chief Big Wheel," which could be mistaken for something heard on a saloon jukebox--on Mars. Meanwhile, Hagerty's guitar howls and wails on tracks like "Annie Get Redzy." While his raw and yowling vocals are present, they are given a nice break by Eleanor Whitmore's crooning pipes on "Faithful Sister." At only 33 minutes, the ride is short and welcomes repeated listens.

If RTX is a bit of a one-trick, rock 'n' roll pony, the Howling Hex has lots of tricks and uses whatever pony happens to be around. It may not be predictable or familiar, but interesting and prolific artists rarely are.

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