Peel Slowly and See
On the promo copy of the “debut” CD from Black Bananas (and I’ll get to why I put the word debut in quotation marks in a few moments), in the upper right-hand corner a sticker was affixed that says “Album of the Year!”. Now, that might seem like a rather ballsy move to make. After all, the record is coming out at the end of January 2012, and there’s a full 11 months still ahead for the music industry. So it might seem premature for the band/label/management to be making that kind of bold pronouncement. However, when I slipped the disc into my CD player for the first time and hit the play button, I gradually came to realize that the powers-that-be that put that sticker there might have meant to be ironic. You see, dear and loyal readers of PopMatters, I honestly felt that someone had missed a word in making that statement: they forgot to add “Worst” to the beginning. Just a cursory listen to Rad Times Xpress IV, with its mash-up of ‘80s hair metal, the Weeknd-style R&B beats and swampy psychedelica, made me want to hit the eject button and throw the disc over to the furry feline friend who shares my humble abode as a cat toy. I also envisioned having to come up with new and novel ways to translate the term “train wreck” and pad it out into a 1,000 word or so review.
Upon listening to this album a second time, the experience was a vastly different one. It seemed transcendent. I got locked into the laissez-faire grooves of the album, and a great deal of it wound up getting under my skin in a good way. I began to realize that the bizarre mish-mash of disparate musical genres was actually kind of fun and lazy cool, and I found myself at the exact opposite end of the spectrum: I was actually enjoying myself. Maybe I was just in a different state of mind, or maybe I had braced myself for what had seemed to be very low expectations. In any event, if any long player is said to be a “grower”, Rad Times Xpress IV might be it – if you can apply that term to just the second listen of a disc. This goes a long way to say that Rad Times Xpress IV is something of a polarizing listen, one that could take time and care, a second sober thought, to get past its knottiness, the buried and slurred female vocals, and the general sense that the band is taking musical elements of the last 40 odd years or so and throwing them against a wall just to see if they stick or not. Rad Times Xpress IV might not even be music, per se, but a genuine work of art in that it allows for such wildly divergent opinions of it within the space of only a couple of listens. That said, when I call this record “art”, I get the sense that its makers never set out to make something serious and high flung. The reason? Jennifer Herrema. More on that in a moment.
Getting back to those quote marks around the word debut, Black Bananas isn’t really a “new” band, nor is this really their “first” disc. To get on the ground floor of this story, you have to go back to 2004, when Herrema – who is most famous for being in the late ‘80s and ‘90s alternative noise rock act Royal Trux – formed a new band. She took the abbreviation of her old group, RTX, for a new name and the ensemble wound up releasing three albums of gritty and outré hard rock. This brings us to Black Bananas. It is exactly the same group as latter-day RTX with the same members. The reason for the name change could be either because Herrema no longer wanted to be associated with Royal Trux, even in passing, or, more likely, because the group has added electronica elements to the mix of this new outing, and felt the change warranted a fresh (well, if you can call a black banana fresh) outlook. However, if you do an acrostic of the album title, you get RTX IV. Meaning: this is basically the fourth album from the band formerly known as RTX. How did the quintet arrive at Black Bananas as a moniker, you ask? It’s a song title on RTX’s 2007 album Western Xteriminator. (Is your head spinning at all of this yet?)
Now, Herrema is a bit of an interesting figure in the history of alternative rock. During her tenure in Royal Trux, she openly admitted that she was a heroin user – and that history of drug use crops up in RTX IV with song titles such as “Acid Song” and “Killer Weed”, plus references to illicit materials in whatever lyrics you can barely discern throughout the album. Plus, while other women in rock from a certain era – Patti Smith, Deborah Harry, Chrissie Hynde, and the cast of the Runaways comes to mind – tend to take on a somewhat masculine identity mixed in with their vulnerability to better play with the boys, Herrema sort of has a WGAF to the whole gender bending approach. You get the sense that she’s simply “hanging out”, and putting as little effort as possible into being “cool” or “tough”. Put another way, I think – based on the evidence here – that she just doesn’t care about what others might think of her, let alone a nebbish music critic such as me. It seems that not much fazes her, and that kind of attitude is all over Rad Times Xpress IV, which may go far to explain why the music is so brazenly all over the map. Other online reviewers have likened the album as the first disc in Herrema’s catalogue that you can actually dance to – and while I wouldn’t go quite that far, there is a sense of playfulness, particularly in the record’s mid-section, which has all sorts of electronic beats backing the pounding riffs. Heck, the song “Nightwalker” even processes Herrema’s vocals in the music world’s most dreaded piece of software, Auto-Tune (shudder).
There’s much more than Auto-Tune to be found on Rad Times Xpress IV. The aforementioned “Killer Weed” crosses the abstractness of Sonic Youth with the ballsy riffs and sleaze of Mötley Crüe. “Acid Song” sounds like what you’d get if the Ozark Mountain Daredevils took a hit of the blotter while listening to deeper fried Southern rock. “Hot Stupid”, perhaps my favourite song, has a punishing, killer riff backed against a slinky beat that practically slithers slippery-like, feeling like what you’d get if your leather jacket got wet. “Do It” runs even further into out-there territory, with a deep bass-y keyboard line competing against an air-raid siren guitar and clipped vocal samples. “Foxy Playground” has a grinding guitar intro, and then transmutes into something out of Ted Nugent. If these descriptions give you any indication, Rad Times Xpress IV is a real free-for-all: an album that the DSM-IV would probably characterize as suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder.
In a way, and not exactly stylistically, Rad Times Xpress IV reminds me a lot of the Fiery Furnaces’ somewhat glacial Blueberry Boat, a record that is wilfully experimental, but still rooted in offering, at least on a fragmentary basis, actual songs. The first time I’d heard that album, I was immediately turned off by it. It must have taken ten listens before I finally was able to “get it” and move towards it in its own terms. (To this day, I consider Blueberry Boat to not be really a record, but a novel in musical form.)
I’m hesitant to guide you, the reader, towards the numerical rating at the bottom of this review, which stands as summary of my judgment of the music. Rad Times Xpress IV is the type of disc that one shouldn’t assign a number to—not because it’s bad or horrible or any less of a work to be held up for criticism, but it’s an unstable record. Your appreciation of it will depend on your tolerance for the unexpected, the somewhat anti-commercial, the inability to drive forward in anything resembling straight lines or connected dots. It’s not the world’s most inaccessible or bizarre offering – I found last year’s In Animal Tongue by Evangelista to be much more baffling and impenetrable, in comparison – but it is music that is made on its own terms, with its own rules, without a care for what a general critic like myself will think.
The numerical rating is static, but the record itself confounds and shifts shape at a moment’s notice. If one is looking for something cleanly produced, water-proof and coherent, you’ll rate the album lower. If you like being on a roller-coaster and feeling like you’ve just taken a handful of drugs without having to actually take any drugs, you might think of this as the perfect album. You might listen to this one day and think it’s awful and putrid as a real-life black banana, and you might listen to it the next and just get caught up in its tweaking of various styles. Rad Times Xpress IV will either be your Album of the Year or Worst Album of the Year, depending on your tastes and background, and perhaps the time, day and your personal mood. Myself, I’m not convinced that this is an album people will be overwhelmingly celebrating when the calendar flips to Jan. 1 next year, but if points can be awarded to Rad Times Xpress IV, they come in that Jennifer Herrema and company have easily made the most audacious and head-spinning record that will likely either grace this year – or any year. That makes it an excellent album – outsider art, in fact – in my books, no matter if I alternatively love and loathe this outing in equal measure, and have absolutely no idea if this is a record worth recommending in the traditional, critical sense. Rad Times Xpress IV is an album that you have to listen to for yourself, draw your own conclusions, and make up your own damn mind, if you can or are willing to take the head-long trip that the record ultimately leads you down.