Looking back at sleaze-rock anti-heroes Royal Trux‘s brief stint with Virgin Records, it’s hard not to wonder whether the label really new what it was getting itself into. Born of the aftermath of NYC noise rock outfit Pussy Galore, Royal Trux from the beginning was a messy, antagonistic and thoroughly drugged out mess that, while certainly employing the same instruments as the likes of Pavement, Guided by Voices or former bandmate Jon Spencer, sounded the furthest thing from commercial. The band’s 1990 album Twin Infinitives is regarded as something of an avant garde classic, the product of heaps of feedback, detuned strings, lousy amplifier speakers and heroin. But it’s also a record whose appeal only exists underground.
The two records that Royal Trux recorded for Virgin — 1995’s Thank You and 1997’s Sweet Sixteen — were also highly impressive slices of fucked-up blues rock, the latter in particular showing off a sprawling, psychedelic range. But “fucked-up” remains the operative phrase, and not only in terms of the music; whoever approved Sweet Sixteen‘s vomit-filled toilet album art likely had some answering to do. So, after two albums, rather than keeping Royal Trux to their contractual obligation, Virgin paid them the rock `n’ roll equivalent of a severance package and sent them on their way, essentially paying for the recording of 1998’s Accelerator without accepting any of the responsibility for it.
Heading back to their onetime home of Drag City, Royal Trux likewise turned to the raw, lo-fi recording techniques of earlier albums like Cats and Dogs and Untitled, creating an album much better suited for a label comfortable with noise-making weirdos. Here’s the funny thing about Accelerator though: in terms of pure songwriting, it’s as accessible or even more so than anything they’ve ever done. It squeals and shrieks and fades and zones, but at the heart of these freaky, even sometimes mildly annoying production techniques are some incredible songs. Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema pair up strongly on “Liar,” a Stones-inspired blooze stomp with all the grit and muscle of The Stooges, whereas folky strum-along “Yellow Kid” juxtaposed unusually noisy harmonica with Hagerty’s cry, “I don’t like this arrangement,” potentially reflecting the band’s relationship with Virgin. And few of the band’s songs ever reached the fun factor of tropical cowbell banger “Another Year.”
The story goes that Accelerator is part of a triptych of decade-themed albums, with Thank You representing the `60s, Sweet Sixteen the `70s, and this album the `80s. The first two make sense — kind of — with Thank You‘s garage rock sound a fairly strong representation of its given decade, and Sweet Sixteen veering into spacy, jamming progressive territory. But Accelerator doesn’t sound anything like popular music of the `80s, or even unpopular music of the `80s. Their recording techniques employ electronic distortion and more processing, but even keytars and Mutt Lange couldn’t make Royal Trux sound like anything but their own skronky chaos, and thank the good dude for that.
For Drag City’s part, the Chicago label has reissued Accelerator without any bells and whistles or bonus tracks, putting it back out into the world for the sake of listeners having access to it again, and that’s always the best reason for any reissue. No doubt, Accelerator is a weird album, one that never had any place on a major label. But it’s also a highly adventurous and rewarding album, the kind of record that stops being an indulgent, discordant mess after a while and reveals itself as something much friendlier and approachable behind its rowdy visage. In spite of its limited commercial appeal, though, Accelerator makes a pretty strong case for why Virgin took interest in the first place — amid the messy production, noisy effects and sense that anything could fall apart at a moment’s notice, Royal Trux have never been anything less than a rock `n’ roll band.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.