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Adventures in Decomposition

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Red Red Meat

There's a Star Above the

Manger Tonight

(Sub Pop)

Royal Trux

Sweet Sixteen

(Virgin)

By Jay Ruttenberg

Red Red Meat and Royal Trux travel on parallel tracks, but in opposite directions. Both bands have endured constant comparison to the Rolling Stones, mostly deserved but sometimes not; at their best, both bands have in fact made postmodern mud pies from the dirt under Keith Richards's fingernails. But Red Red Meat began with a gritty Stones impersonation that culminated on its sophomore LP, Jimmywine Majestic (1994), then made bunny hops toward the naked misery and formless textures of the new There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight. Royal Trux, on the other hand, deconstructed the Stones right off the bat (and most notably on 1990's Twin Infinitives), only to mime them on its 1995 major-label debut, Thank You. Now, on the new Sweet Sixteen, the band tries--and fails--to go home again.

Thank You was a turning point for Royal Trux: gone were the opiate self-indulgence of Twin Infinitives and sparse moans of its untitled "bones" album (1992); even the relatively accessible biker blues of most of 1993's Cats and Dogs seemed chaotic next to this familiar collection of tight guitar boogie. Thank You was literally buried under critical praise--judging by the record's ubiquitousness in the cutout bins, you'd think Virgin gave away more copies than it sold. Older fans missed the chaos, potential new ones were given little in the way of introduction--coming upon Royal Trux at that point was like walking in at the middle of a movie. On tour, Trux front couple Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty--formerly a live act you couldn't look away from, with Herrema swaggering faceless behind her stringy mane--plowed through the songs like tired robots; in one interview during that period they claimed that they'd rehearsed the material so much they felt like a cover band.

On Sweet Sixteen, Royal Trux remains cold--but not crisp. The record's as grossly unlistenable as Twin Infinitives but lacks that album's surreal queerness, with the gruesome twosome and this year's rhythm section spitting up half-baked boogie tunes that all seem to break down. This time the turmoil results from plain old poor songwriting, particularly in solo-wank platforms like "Golden Rules," "10 Days 12 Nights," and "Microwave Made."

Sweet Sixteen feels less like a nod to the band's earlier work than the only route to take after Thank You--like it was either go there or go on to the credibility vacuum where the Rolling Stones now reside. Even the cover of the album suggests an attempt to outskank the Stones, who in 1968 briefly adorned the front of Beggar's Banquet with a picture of the top of a disheveled toilet (the cover was quickly yanked). The cover of Sweet Sixteen not only flaunts its toilet, but focuses on the bowl--open, soiled, and perhaps most appropriately, clogged.

Red Red Meat's There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight, by contrast, comes wrapped in a lovely but flimsy cardboard package, with two cardboard inserts of storybook paintings for each album cut that are bulkier than the sleeve itself. It looks and smells like an art-school project, which is what it sounds like, too. On their fourth LP, the local veterans have unleashed the experimental tendencies that on past records served mostly to give more conventional songs an edge. Bizarre noises throb, percussion is pushed to the forefront, the vocals are blearier than ever, and guitars stun with spurts of nastiness. There's a Star is, like Royal Trux's Twin Infinitives, a record more interested in itself than in the listener.

But with Twin Infinitives, Royal Trux turned out to be laying groundwork for its best music. Red Red Meat offers There's a Star as a follow-up to 1995's Bunny Gets Paid, a superior album that harnessed its textures to tunes. Relaxed yet incessantly pushing forward, it came to a head with the creepy twin centerpieces of "Gauze" and "Idiot Son." Both songs had been recorded differently for a seven-inch single that effectively concluded Red Red Meat's initial era; on Bunny Gets Paid these songs in particular embody the band's reincarnation, the mournful tunes of old suddenly suspended in spacious new environments. In interviews front man Tim Rutili described the album as a cross between Fleetwood Mac and Miles Davis, and expressed interest in pushing things further toward the studio improvisation of fusion-era Davis.

Like its precursor, There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight crawls slowly out of the gate, building, building, building...but to nothing. With the possible exception of the fiddlebilly title track, the record lacks a money shot. The soundscapes can be fascinating, as increased volume unveils eerie quirks--the spastic, ear-crunching burps of "Paul Pachal" or subversive squeals in the droning "Airstream Driver"--but eventually the work suffocates in its own artsiness. Bunny Gets Paid at least comforted its listeners in the midst of the muck, concluding with the miserable yet optimistic "There's Always Tomorrow."

There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight isn't as good as Bunny Gets Paid for the same reason that Tricky's Nearly God excursion pales in comparison to his debut: the textures are given too much room to prowl; both experiments come off sounding like works in progress. In Tricky's case, that turned out to be true--Nearly God served as a bridge to his best effort yet, Pre-Millennium Tension. Red Red Meat reportedly has a new pop-oriented album in the works; perhaps its masterpiece is yet to come. Royal Trux, on the other hand, has little to look forward to. Having positioned themselves as rock stars (albeit without fans), Hagerty and Herrema can neither return to form nor continue in their current collapsing vein. They bulldozed the walls at the band's inception and then spent a career rebuilding them. Not until they were done did they realize they were building their own mausoleum.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Album covers, Red Red Meat, "There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight," and Royal Trux, "Sweet Sixteen.".

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