In an effort to fortify my resume and to combat the boredom resulting from hours of watching British sitcoms on Netflix Instant, I recently joined a program at my school pairing international students with American guides. I was paired with a Chinese student, and like a good American, I have spent my time with her extolling the virtues of Mexican food and Chai lattes at restaurants and coffee shops around town. Naturally, at one point our conversation turned to music. She told me that she particularly likes American country music, her favorite artist being Taylor Swift. She then asked me why Americans like rock and roll so much, surprised that people who live such laid back lives would want to listen to such loud and boisterous music.
I had this question in the back of my mind as I listened through Royal Bath’s powerful new Better Luck Next Life, out now on Kanine Records. Royal Baths are the latest from the burgeoning Brooklyn via San Francisco psychedelic garage rock scene. It’s an album drenched in violent lust and strung out on speed. The scene is always a seedy one, evoking images of back alley drug deals and ravaged motel rooms. The subject matter is undeniably dark, as singer Jigmae Baer details vampiric sex scenes and murder fantasies with an icy detachment that makes the album feel that much steamier. On occasion, Cox’s withdrawn persona crumbles and the man sounds positively demonic. Think Al Pacino in Devil’s Advocate without Keanu Reeves ruining everything.
The album plays out like Velvet Underground with a shoegaze-bent, reminiscent of other psychedelic infused garage bands like Brian Jonestown Massacre and Spiritualized. Every instrument is drenched in reverb, giving the rhythm section more punch and imbuing Baer’s mumbling lyrics with a certain bravado. The songs are built on mood rather than structure and drift from bluesy grooves to a pulsing frenzy, punctuated by frequent, manic guitar solos.
The best example of this wandering style comes in “Burned”, a song built around a blues riff that sounds like George Thorogood after too much cough syrup. Baer’s murmuring, wounded voice feeds off of adlibbed guitar noodling, creating a rising tension. By the song’s end, the murmuring turns to howling as Baer repeats ad nauseam that he’ll “Never, ever get burned again”. The result is the most cringe-worthy moment on the whole album.
Baer exhibits an entirely different personality on the slinky, perversely catchy “Faster, Harder”. A swinging bass line, rudimentary drum line, and swaths of slide guitar provide the backdrop as Baer smarmily coos about sexual encounters with probably the only girl as depraved as he is. The guitarist, Jeremy Cox, is given every opportunity to shine on this song with two (!) guitar solos that are enough to make Jonny Greenwood eat his own heart out. By the songs end, in which Baer urgently chants “Faster, Harder” over a cacophony of noise, you feel like you should put on some hand sanitizer.
If “Faster, Harder” can be characterized as dark, then “Black Sheep” is positively sociopathic. The song is a punchy stomp comprised of a walking bass line and jangling guitars. Cox adds additional tension, peppering the songs with tremolo picking and feedback. Meanwhile, Baer evokes your classic Catcher in the Rye inspired serial killer. When Baer croons in call and response “I am sick of all the phonies in my life. I would like to kiss them properly with a knife”, the result is arresting.
Which leads me back to my Chinese friend’s question. What is it about this album that draws me in? As she perceptively noted, I lead the fairly laid back life of a student. In no way am I caught up in a seedy underworld of sex, drugs and violence. And yet, year by year I can’t get enough of this stuff. I still have Weeknd’s House of Balloons on repeat and obsess over the 70’s punk rock heroes whose influence clearly pervades Better Luck Next Life throughout. Why is this stuff so profoundly compelling and, more confounding yet, so American?
My theory lies in America’s fascination with excess. We are all guilty of it, from the mindless consumers to the college liberals who hate them. (http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/college-liberal )It’s in the endless lines for new Apple products and Nike sneakers. It’s in the big box stores. It’s at the gas pump. It’s the KFC Double Down. It’s evident in ways both mundane (e.g. how, as hard as I try, I am incapable of taking less than a 10 minute shower) to the extreme (in other words, this album). Greed, seduction and lust, for better or for worse, speak to all of us. These are emotions that the classic American bands that have inspired Royal Baths tap into. So for fans of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Richard Hell, and Tom Waits, this album is for you. For everyone else there is Taylor Swift.
Tim Myers is a law student and a frequent contributor for FP. If anyone knows how to live a life of excess, it’s Tim.