Music

Black Bananas: Rad Times Xpress IV

Photo: Steven Perilloux

Jennifer Herrema, ex of Royal Trux, and her cohorts deliver a confounding record that is clearly a candidate for most audacious album of the year, a mere five weeks into 2012.


Black Bananas

Rad Times Xpress IV

Label: Drag City
US Release Date: 2012-01-31
UK Release Date: 2012-01-30
Amazon
iTunes

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.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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