Black Bananas: Rad Times Xpress IV Review (Four Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Three reactions, Three impressions, Three Takes on Rad Times Xpress IV by Black Bananas.
Jennifer Herrema late of rock deconstructionists Royal Trux, who briefly morphed into RTX, reappears here with Black Bananas and her voice is raspy as ever. For whatever reason I fully expected this record to be completely dire, but it is not. Royal Trux found a small hole in stoned 70s rock (Stones, some Neil Young) and crawled into it, set up shop and invented their own weird sound world that could be great and terrible, often at the same time. Black Bananas sort of does the same thing but the point of reference is overstuffed 80s funk-rock a la Parliament-Funkadelic and George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” record. Except the end result isn’t exactly funky. More like a groove-based disorientation (which frankly is pretty similar to what the other-half of Royal Trux, Neil Michael Haggerty, has been exploring with the Howling Hex). Every song has about nine things going on at the same time. Digital hand-claps, synth, synth-y guitar, drums, vocals, strings, hair metal guitar soloing, even more vocals and farty potato basslines, you name it’s all in here. And like I mentioned I didn’t want to like this but I find myself strangely pulled back to it. “Hot Stupid” is pretty catchy I can’t deny (and that’s about all you can ask from a song called “Hot Stupid” I think). And other tunes, namely “Do It” sort of sound like acid-damaged modern R&B or a new-ish Prince song, which is basically the same thing. “My House” is surprisingly not a cover of the Mary Jane Girls’ classic since that would make sense as a sort of touchstone for this record. Well, it would if the Mary Jane Girls had dressed like LA Guns and dabbled in cod-Metallica riffs sometimes.
Black Bananas (formerly RTX) frontwoman Jennifer Herrema’s band Royal Trux with then boyfriend Neil Hagerty deconstructed the Rolling Stones into a messy noise rock affair. If Royal Trux was the Exile On Main Street, Black Bananas squarely fall into the disco funk of the post-Some Girls Stones. Opener “It’s Cool” kicks off with a snare drum fill straight into a tripped out guitar intro that almost sounds like a rewrite of the riff to “Foxy Lady”. “TV Trouble” drops most of the psychedelics for a slightly more straight ahead bass funk before “Acid Song” puts things straight into a slightly trippier 1980s Stones homage sound. The rest of the first half falters between not memorable and downright annoying with the auto-tuned vocals “Hot Stupid”. The riff heavy “My House” is nothing really memorable but helps pull things out of dance beat territory for a minute. The wailing saxophone of “Overpass” is sort of the highlight of the second half of the album while the closer “Killer Weed” seems like a tacked on Motley Crue leftover. While Rad Times Xpress IV never exactly completely flops, it fails to produce anything of much interest.
A few years removed from the scuzzy classic rock of Royal Trux, Jennifer Herrema still can’t mellow out. Her latest band, Black Bananas, make the kind of convoluted and overwhelming noisy rock that will instantly draw in fans of Trux, while adding their own funky twist to the occasion. Rad Times Xpress IV is 45 minutes of messy, cosmic sludge that sounds like Herrema’s old bands aural mess filtered through the swampy, psychedelic lens of Parliament Funkadelic. This is not saying you are going to hear Maggot Brain, but the spirit, that sense of more is more and weird is better is a common thread throughout the entire LP.
Tracks range from the righteous, thick garage funk of “Hot Stupid” to the thick synth charges of “RTX Go-Go.” From the opening sludge of “It’s Cool,” Rad Times Xpress IV is a 13 song exercise in excess and opulence, with no effect pedal or outrageous idea discounted. This is an album that features songs titled “Killer Weed,” “Foxy Playground” and “Acid Song,” and continues the rich RT tradition of keeping one foot in the gutter and the other in the refined guitar rock cannon. The songs are about as chaotic and unfocused as you would expect, with the listener feeling a little like they are sitting in a sloppy, late night jam session. Like Royal Trux, you can’t help but wonder what the band could accomplish if they didn’t sound like they were intentionally throwing sand in the gears (especially when the blueprint fails as it does on “TV Trouble”), but Rad Times Xpress IV is plenty of fun and another feather in the RT related cannon.
(PS–If you aren’t sold simply by the glitter bombed, funked up classic rock, know that the artwork is about as outrageous as the music and well worth checking out.)
Tim (Vernon Wayne)
In a word, this album is unpredictable.
In more words the album is disjointed and self-indulgent, but also fun and promising. Considered as a stand-alone entry outside of legacy that Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty built with Royal Trux, this album is still a very noteworthy listen. It falls somewhere short of extraordinary, but only perhaps for its lack of focus. The electronic-infused beats are punctuated by masterful guitar work that manages to be both tasteful and bombastic within stand-out tracks such as “Do It” and “TV Trouble”. Clocking in at just over two minutes, “Do It” crosses the line of succinctness into becoming fleeting, which proves to be problematic theme throughout.
The tracks with the least to say musically seem to get the most time on album. Curiously, the album switches it up to an almost arena rock-punk style for “My House”, which is interesting, but almost feels like a hidden track right there in the middle of the album. The song offers us a rare glimpse of Hagerty’s impressive guitar prowess, without hiding behind the over-saturated fuzz that permeates much of the rest of album, which is refreshing. Herrema maintains poise and attitude throughout but falls flat on some choruses that don’t feel genuine and some, like on “Hot Stupid”, that resort to the unfortunate tactic of autotune to further this disingenuousness. This album is both impressive and fun, but manages to still not seem important.
Don’t miss Black Bananas on 5/22 for what should be a great show with Kurt Vile at the 400 Bar.