[24 June 2014]
Jennifer Herrema has been making tawdry and trashy seem sexy and cool since her days fronting Royal Trux. Ever since the band broke up in 2001, she’s consistently proven just as much the creative force behind their shred-heavy rock as guitarist Neil Hagerty. RTX, her first group post-Hagerty, turned the sleaze knob up to eleven by cribbing guitar licks from ‘80s hair metal. Picking up where RTX left off, Black Bananas keeps the gutter glam attitude intact while offering a more dance-oriented variation. Much of the hypnotic bounce on their debut, Rad Times Xpress IV, combined Herrema’s trademark Sunset Strip seediness with psychedelic funk. On Electric Brick Wall, however, Black Bananas exchanges the mothership connection for the low end of EDM.
Black Bananas still carries enough high voltage for most stadium acts, and Electric Brick Wall is chock full of fretboard acrobatics and thrasher-chick swagger. “Hey Rockin”, for one, is a guitar-powered anthem from an alternate universe where Mötley Crüe is backed by a cyborg instead of Tommy Lee. The roadhouse stomper “Highway Down” swings and sways to a standard blues shuffle, yet the broad swaths of synths and drum machines owe more to the rave scene than the jook joint. Meanwhile, Herrema’s reptilian hiss sounds as dangerous and seductive as ever. The aggressive pose she strikes on “Give It To Me” subverts the rock tradition that so often identifies hedonism with masculinity. Snarling through a talk box with what I presume is a forked tongue, she makes leather-clad tough guys everywhere shit their pants with lines like “You got to dig deep / When you give it to me / Or it’s not enough.”
But the differences between this record and Rad Times Xpress IV are substantial. The more adventurous songs on Electric Brick Wall fuse guitar heroics with the heavy bass and driving beats of EDM. Put another way, these songs are ready-made for the dance floor rather than the arena. The bottom drops early and often on the slow burner “Creeping Out of Line” before capping off with a knowingly preposterous solo. Should George Lucas ever decide to remake Return of the Jedi for a third time, the Max Rebo Band ought to cover the first single, “Physical Emotions”. Spacey dubstep mixes with Herrema’s vocodered delivery to turn out stellar electrofunk well suited for a galaxy far, far away.
While Black Bananas aims for somewhere in the middle of retro and futuristic, the songs don’t always hit the mark between old and new. In fact, several tracks are cluttered with too many layers of electronic noise and inscrutable lyrics buried under too much autotune. Bordering at times on incoherence, the arrangement and production could use some paring down. To be fair, excess has always been a key feature in Herrema’s pawn shop aesthetic. Electric Brick Wall can be an unholy mess, but cleaning it up, I suspect, would miss the point.