Jeremy Cox and Jigmae Baer, the duo that comprises Royal Baths, don’t seem all that ashamed of putting their influences up front in their music. Their brand of psychedelic rock doesn’t even necessarily feel modern, and all the bands that have been mentioned in the past—Velvet Underground and so on—are still fitting comparison on Better Luck Next Life. What’s interesting about Royal Baths, though, is how the duo manages to overcome that sameness by embracing it. The group doesn’t trade in cheap innovation, but rather inserts itself in a very specific, acid-rock tradition and carries that torch as best it can.
As it turns out, these guys can carry that torch well. The guitars echo with just the right amount of grinding reverb, and the vocals have that detached, druggy quality that lures you in with its charm even as it leaves you cold. The songs themselves, recorded on analog tape, contain all the creaks of tape recording without ever hiding behind lo-fi hiss and the squeak of reels the way so many bands tend to do. No, Royal Baths deals in both gritty recording and clarity of sound—mostly through muscled bass lines and sheer volume.
Early track “Burned” puts all the band’s talents on display. “It burns, burns, eats you up,” Cox repeats on the track, and you can hear the song smoldering behind him. The drums roll on a sinister shuffle, and one guitar jangles away on brittle chords while the other runs off taut-wire riffs. It’s a huge, blistering number, the kind of rumbling rock song fits for basements full of pot smoke and dingy club floors sticky with well liquor and canned beer. “Be Afraid of Me” takes the shadowy mood of “Burned” and amplifies it beautifully, playing down the distortion in favor of troubling negative space. “I’m not the type to suffer indignities on my knees,” Cox nearly whispers, and you can feel the tension building.
The kind of tension and release Royal Baths plays in is, like so much they do, not new, but it is done with control. “Nightmare Voodoo” shifts perfectly from tumbling interludes to a scary, straight-ahead stomp, while feedback barely squalls and grinds here and there, hinting at the real trouble out on the edges. In these songs, we see Royal Baths at full strength, tapping into the powers of their rock forefathers and making them their own. If the elements are exciting—the way the angular riffs can borrow from math-rock, surf-rock, and Middle Eastern music is quite striking—they can also be limiting. What Royal Baths does, it does well, but somewhere in the middle of the record, they start to repeat themselves. The acidic, bluesy feel expands to its borders and can’t go beyond, and those blistering, quick-fire riffs start to become interchangeable. As much as the bass thunders along and the guitars still excite with their grainy textures, on songs like the trudging “Contempt” and twang-lite “Map of Heaven”, we don’t get anything new from them. Royal Baths delivers a solid record front to back on Better Luck Next Life, but it’s also a record that may be too true to its influences. As genuine as these sounds seem coming from Cox and Baer, they can’t help but make you wonder what would happen if they pushed past what they already know.