Drag City has made a habit of putting out some pretty obscure reissues in the past few years. It may have started with hidden gems like Gary Higgins’ Red Hash, but by the time we got to Carol Kleyn’s harp records, we were firmly in the outliers category. Now, their new reissue of Royal Trux’s 1998 album Accelerator doesn’t exactly fit that mold, which makes it curious right off the bat. Though, it’s also not the album the band is known for, which puts them right back in line with these other records, in that it’s a reissue that makes a case for a (slightly) undersold album’s continued relevance.
And, hearing it 14 years later, Accelerator is still plenty fresh. This was the album they made after their major label, Virgin, let them go. That label figured that maybe Royal Trux wasn’t going to make them any money even if Kurt Cobain made millions for his label. To hear Accelerator, now or then, is to mumble a big No shit to the execs who signed this band thinking they could cross over. This is the sound of arena rock if arena rock meant yelling into a boombox and playing it for 30,000 people.
Royal Trux was already known for being plenty thorny. Even major label records like Thank You, with its pleasant title and relatively clean licks, were tough pills to swallow. That album had a sweet classic rock funk to it, but it also had plenty of basement-show grit to muck up the proceedings. There’s also, of course, the notorious sonic slop of Twin Infinitives, the band’s finest early work. Accelerator is so tricky to navigate because while its not as approachable as Thank You, it’s also not as overtly stand-offish and abrasive as Twin Infinitives.
Songwriters Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema spent their career as Royal Trux fascinated not only by the different hazes they could create with hiss and distortion, but also with the blues, and Accelerator stretches that blues fascination out into a meditation on repetition. “I’m Ready” skronks to life with treble-high guitars and Herrema’s howling vocals, almost as if you stumbled onto a rehearsal tape that had already been played halfway through. “I’m ready”, Herrema repeats over and over again. “Now you know I’m ready”. It’s a song busted up by its own distortion, though the next song “Yellow Kid” strips it down to clean guitar, harmonica, and vocals. If it sounds on paper like straight-up folk, in practice it sounds like a desiccated version of that, with what seems like a mile of space between the harmonica and the guitars, and the voices crying in unison “I don’t like this arrangement” again and again. “The Banana Question” twists dayglo ‘80s-rock into something murky and unrecognizable, as voices echo Herrema’s sneering refrain, “Is that a question?”
There’s something very self-aware about this moment, a sort of meta-move for the band, since you’re left to wonder if they themselves are asking questions or just breaking them down for lack of anything else to do. The repetitions continue on the insipid goof of “Juicy, Juicy, Juice” and the space-pop basic rhythm and melodies of “New Bones”. But it’s when the album breaks from this path that things get more interesting. The funk-rock-cum-tropicalia of “Another Year” may imply a cycle in its title, but it’s a fresh and propulsive turn for the record. Meanwhile, “Liar” is a lights-out rock single, something that would be at home on the classic Thank You.
These moments—along with “Stevie (For Steven S.)”, among others—show that the tape-hiss lo-fi that shapes much of the record is little more than artifice. It also shows that Royal Trux is just a damned good rock band, one that echoes the Pixies as much as it does the Stones. And sure, the band’s exploits into repetition and fidelity on Accelerator are interesting (as they are on Twin Infinitives) but they can also be plodding. “Juicy, Juicy, Juice” wears out its welcome after a minute and half. “I’m Ready” seems stuck in a similar stasis, and “New Bones” starts as an interesting shift into new keyboard sonics, but ends up in a squalling confusion we’ve heard from them before.
Accelerator is a confounding album, even a decade and a half later. It’s a clear representation of what made Royal Trux so good, but you can also see the limits of their stubborn approach on this album. There are moments where you hear them coming through the scuff and fuzz, but for every moment of revelation on Accelerator, for every charge forward, there’s a retreat, a hitting of the brakes to hide behind the sound instead of shining through. Sometimes we repeat something to get to the bottom of it, and sometimes we’re not quite sure how to move on.
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