Listening to White Stuff – Royal Trux‘ first album of new material since 2000’s Pound For Pound – I simply could not stop thinking about and drawing comparisons between it and Danny Boyle’s film T2 Trainspotting. In the film, all of the characters who survived the events which played out in Trainspotting had found life after heroin addiction and discovered new fascinations and addictions – be it crime, working out, pornography, dealing, pimping or pushing and more. The world carried on, and T2 sees the characters attempting to move with it while not actually being able to change who they are at their core. White Stuff functions in a very similar manner to T2 in that, nearly twenty years later, the bandmembers have smartened up and gotten clean [read: the heroin in which every note the band once played was steeped is cleaner and tighter], analogue recording and production has been replaced with digital, and the fuzzier, dronier and Stones-esque styling has been refreshed and tightened.
Needless to say, White Stuff would like listeners to believe that it’s a brand new day for Royal Trux, but take long for listeners to figure out that, while the presentation might be new, fresher and cleaner, the bandmembers haven’t forgotten who they are and (in an absolutely obvious effort to be coy) what they know now is more white than it is tar.
As the album’s title track opens its A-side, listeners will be able to find plenty of recognizable elements present from the Royal Trux of old – Jennifer Herrema’s shredded vocal rasp dominates the track along with Neil Haggerty’s warhorse guitar tone – but there are noticeable alterations about the band’s sound too; where the mixes of the band’s songs were often confusingly dense and fuzzy, there’s a cleanliness and clarity comparable to the sounds on Bowie’a Berlin album trilogy. The sound here is crisp and airy, and the metallic clank about it gives the cut a propulsive quality which is really exciting and delivers where lyrics about trolling through a Duty Free shop come up short. By the time the song finally begins to fade out, listeners will find themselves absolutely on board with the promise and possibilities that “White Stuff” implies; the refresher presented here is the sort that concedes some energy to the band’s beginnings, but it isn’t bound to those sorts of limitations. This is a new thing, and opening the album this way gets listeners receptive to that.
The A-side keeps the energy first presented in “White Stuff” up at the “full-to-brimming” mark as it goes. The guttural low end affixed to “Year of the Dog” gets the song pumping and actually comes close to pushing Royal Trux out on dance floors which sets the stage for the groovy, trip-hoppy vibe of “Purple Audacity #2” (which also sees Herrema reducing her stripped, strangled rasp down to a sexy purr or exhausted rasp) before Royal Trux stumbles a bit and repeats that vibe with an added infusion of Jim Carroll-esque, lean addiction storytelling in “Suburban Junky Lady” before circling around and returning to the noisy, attenuated and overdriven snarl that “White Stuff” featured for “Shoes and Tags.” In that movement, do something completely against their own convention: they sew the A-side of White Stuff up into a neat, tidy set so tightly, they could easily stop and call what they’ve got a really, really effective EP – but they don’t. They give up one more cut (“Get Used To This” is a hip hop guest track which features Kool Keith and feels like a contrivance intended to draw crossover appeal) as a delightful post script, and then listeners will be left scrambling to lift the needle, flip the disc and find a second helping.
…And “Sic Em Slow” perfectly revives White Stuff‘s running to start the B-side, with a great blend of urban music and dirty shirt rock n’ roll which quickly comes to characterize the movements here. Now, it’s important to point out that nothing about “Sic Em Slow” overtly states, “this is the direction we’re going to be headed in,” the sound of it simply proves to be the tie which binds both the side and songs together. Parts of “Sic Em Slow” can be heard in the greasy, scruffy tone of “Every Day Swan” and the fumbling-towards-pop spittle which drips from “Whopper Dave” as well as the uncharacteristically nimble and clean-toned “Purple Audacity #1” – but that is not to imply that the whole side is intended to fit a concept, just that this B-side is a finer mosaic than its counterpart. Rather, the little common bits which manifest from track-to-track pull the side along and give it a coherence which has been previously unheard of, coming from a Royal Trux album. That movement also makes a climax which comes in the part lo-fi/part epic/part twenty-first century party anthem entitled “Under Ice” feel all-the-greater and more satisfying, and leaves nothing wanting as it closes both the side and the album. “Under Ice” plays so well and ambitiously, in fact, that it’s hard to believe that the song is the work of a band so steeped in No Wave and heroin chic as Royal Trux is; it’s a revelation.
After running front-to-back with the album and recognizing the strides that Royal Trux has made with its tenth album, any listener will be able to recognize both the achievement that White Stuff is as well as similarity to T2. Like the movie, the music is a move forward for Royal Trux and it does express great growth and development, but it doesn’t attempt to forget who the band is, at its best. White Stuff is the absolute best kind of return – better than any fan could ever have hoped for.
(Fat Possum Records)
Royal Trux’ White Stuff album will be released on March 1, 2019.