When long-dormant bands reunite, there’s a natural fear that they’ll be unable to recapture the essence of what they once were. But with Royal Trux, that’s not a worry, because that essence was in a perpetual state of flux. In the subterranean sandbox that was ‘90s indie rock, Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema were like those weirdo kids who could flip their eyelids inside out—without warning, they could transform something benign into something grotesque. They would make overtures toward radio-ready boogie-rock one moment, and then expose its innards the next, peeling songs apart into a tangle of feedback, drum-machine spurts, and scrambled voices that sound like they’re coming from a shortwave radio caught between two stations.
Even at the height of ‘90s indie-rock reunions earlier this decade, a Royal Trux reboot seemed highly unlikely. Prior to splitting up at the turn of the millennium, Hagerty and Herrema weren’t just creative partners, but romantic ones, too, a facet that potentially adds a layer of complication to any reconciliation proceeding. And their interim pursuits couldn’t have been any more different: while Herrema has pushed Royal Trux’s sleaze-rock side into the digital age with Black Bananas and embraced her status as grand dame of the underground, Hagerty has decamped to Denver and turned his project the Howling Hex into the world’s strangest norteño band. Even when Hagerty deigned to revisit Royal Trux’s 1990 avant-rock touchstone Twin Infinitives for a full-album performance in 2012, he recruited a ringer to perform Herrema’s parts.
But if Royal Trux’s conspicuous absence from the reunion circuit seemed consistent with their non-conformist legacy, the only way to up that ante was to reunite once everyone had totally given up on the idea. Likewise, the duo’s first proper album in 17 years is a surprisingly practical gesture: Platinum Tips + Ice Cream is a career-spanning live album that connects the accessible and impenetrable extremes of the Trux discography into the same woofer-blowing frequency.
On their ‘90s albums, Royal Trux ran roughshod over classic-rock convention; here, they take the same sacrilegious approach to reinterpreting their own catalog. On the 1992 acoustic elegy “Junkie Nurse,” Hagerty painted a portrait of addiction so stark and unflinching, you could practically feel him get the shakes. On Platinum Tips + Ice Cream, Royal Trux treat the song like a mechanical bull they can hop on and grind for a joyride, blowing out its intimate dimensions and turning it into a meaty, cowbell-clanging southern-rock workout. Feeling strung-out has never sounded so fun.
Platinum Tips + Ice Cream compiles performances from some of the band’s initial post-reunion performances at Berserktown II in California and at New York’s Webster Hall, with Hagerty and Herrema supported by drummer Tim Barnes and bassist Brian McKinley. At times, the in-the-red recording quality, muted audience noise, and improvised, half-remembered lyrics make it sound like you’re actually listening in on a first rehearsal guided by the loosest of muscle memories. But in Royal Trux’s case, being out of practice isn’t exactly a liability, given that their greatest work always felt like it was on the verge of falling apart. Even on “Sewers of Mars”—a choogling highlight from their spit-shined 1995 major-label debut, Thank You—Hagerty and Herrema’s sandpapered harmonies scuffed away at the song’s sturdy, Stones-y foundation. The version here feels like revisiting the same site after almost two decades of rot and decay.
But if Platinum Tips + Ice Cream sees Royal Trux turn their most solid songs into something more collapsible, it also works the other way, transforming early lo-fi singles like “Red Tiger” and “Mercury” into the sort of swaggering, heavy-grooved rock jams the crudely recorded originals only implied. And, in the most radical revision, they manage to rebuild Twin Infinitives’ “Ice Cream” from the maracas up, melting down its arrhythmic discord into a simmering hypno-soul worthy of a Blaxploitation flick’s closing credits roll. Alas, such revelations may be lost on Trux newcomers, who’d be better off tuning into the sleazy psych of 1993’s Cats and Dogs or the alien arena-rock of 1998’s Accelerator for a more immersive introduction to the band’s surreal sound world. But in true contrarian Trux fashion, Platinum Tips + Ice Cream presents a most curious contradiction: it’s a greatest-hits album designed for die-hards.