Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Music Review: Royal Trux - Cats and Dogs [Reissue]



Back in 2007, I was fortunate enough to see Massachusetts-bred lo-fi trailblazers Sebadoh on the second stop of their long-ballyhooed reunion tour. During one of their multiple between song instrumental rotations, de-facto frontman and all-around indie godhead Lou Barlow quipped on how the band was, nearly 20 years later, still playing to an audience of twenty-something hipsters. There was no bitterness from the famously cantankerous singer mind you, more a vibe of resignation that his band’s lot had been cast and no matter how long they persevere, their fans will remain more or less of a certain age and mindset. He continued by comparing the influx of posturing young blog bands to the golden age of American indie-rock: “What are you guys even listening to nowadays? We used to listen to Butthole Surfers, Fugazi, and Royal Trux…you heard of them?” A few scattered “woos” rang out before the crowd fell silent and the band, smirks across their faces, continued with their set.

I’m sure the former two bands had fans nicely represented across the venue, their legacies pretty well documented, but Royal Trux seemed the odd band out, even at a base level of scene comparison. Despite signing at one point to Virgin Records during the heart of the grunge sweepstakes, the San Francisco by way of Washington D.C. group never really broke out of their tight-knit community of lackadaisical classic-rock pillagers, instead toiling away in relative anonymity while many of their contemporaries futilely grasped at that elusive brass ring. Nevertheless, their 1993 album Cats and Dogs—their first produced as a full band, and for some time carrying OOP status until seeing a recent reissue by Drag City—found the core duo of Neil Haggerty and Jennifer Herrema dropping a lot of the noisy, drug-induced rambles of their early work for a casual but comparatively focused approach to songwriting which scattered mumbled hooks amidst loosely structured slabs of psychedelic sludge and hypnotic, western-fried grooves.

Normally this is the point in a reissue review where I should preach how Cats and Dogs is an overlooked classic, outlining how its influence is easily traceable to today’s 90s referencing indie-rock, but honestly that’s just not the case. Here’s a very solid album by a, sure, underrated band, who probably put out a couple of other records of comparable quality but never really had the ambition to go beyond that. And that’s not a mark against them or Cats and Dogs, not when the songs are so effortlessly enjoyable. “Teeth” is every bit the dynamic opener that it’s title suggests; “The Spectre” is a melodically sound, folksy warbler; if I was critiquing music in the mid-90s I’m sure “Skywood Greenback Mantra” would have been one of my favorite songs of 1993; and “Hot and Cold Skulls” casually struts its way through rock’s golden age—or, as one particularly inspired Amazon reviewer posits, it’s not unlike “the sound of Keith Richards slappin’ Mick Jagger proper.”

And seventeen years later it’s that very sonic malleability that most endears. Like I said, there aren’t very many direct descendants of the Royal Trux sound, as loose as that aesthetic may ultimately be. Sure, this feels like 90s indie-rock through and through, but outside of the last Magik Markers album, I can’t immediately think of another modern rock record that plays so liberally with these sludgy, sleep-walking rawk postures. Which is to say that this Cats and Dogs reissue isn’t likely to garner that many revisionist evaluations—at least not in a season that also sees the re-release of a few classics from the likes of Superchunk and Jon Spencer (whom Haggerty actually started out with in the great 80s noise-rock band Pussy Galore before breaking off with his wife to form Royal Trux)—but then as now, it’s one that deserves a few more gracious ears. [77/100] [Published 09.09.10]

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