Published on August 28th, 2014 | by Dave Scaddan1
Black Bananas – Electric Brick Wall
She may draw on dirty sexuality and autotune like Top 40 pop divas, but none of those stars have anything on Jennifer Herrema’s Black Bananas.
A few months ago, there were two big reasons to anticipate the second LP by Black Bananas. For starters, the first one, ‘Rad Times Xpress’ was a rebranding of Jennifer Herrema’s RTX project that brought together all the best styles that had fuelled her post-Royal Trux output. Second, word that former Trux partner Neil Hagerty would cowrite a few songs made this record seem important. Hagerty and Herrema hadn’t done much together for a long time, and much of what they used to do was astounding. It turns out that neither of these reasons have much to do with why ‘Electric Brick Wall’ is one of the best new albums out right now — it’s tough to sense Hagerty’s presence on any of these songs, and it doesn’t sound much like the previous record because it doesn’t sound much like anything else. It’s not even a very cohesive record, just ten great individual tracks that stand out like ten brightly coloured wrappers in the garbage.
Jennifer Herrema has always had an ear for the same kinds of unclean, hard-edged sounds that have given folks like Tom Waits, Keith Richards, Lemmy, and Tina Turner so much of their style. She’s always layered this dirt over music that drew on blues, rock, and metal to create a sound that’s hard to define, and distinctly hers. ‘Electric Brick Wall’ is nothing new in this sense; the unwashed sound that JH has always given us is still here, but it’s drifting into many more musical genres, practically a new one for every song.
Some of the coolest moments in these ten tracks happen when Jennifer sounds like she’s constructing something for the club. At least two of these songs sound like they could’ve been written for Kylie Minogue or Madonna back in the day. Of course, production-wise, they sound nothing like your typical radio-friendly club jam, and they’re a long way from the slack boogie of ‘Thank You’ or the eighties metal grooves of ‘Western Xterminator.’ ‘Physical Emotions’ sounds a lot like the sexually energized vibe that Mick Jagger tried to ooze onto his polarizing solo efforts, letting the slow funk draw out all the attitude. Then, on ‘Give it to Me,’ Jennifer lets her band saunter through a guitar, bass, and synth pattern that’s so busy and twisted that the ear has no choice but to give in to its greatness. Meanwhile, her vocals and lyrics convey a yearning sexuality that we’ve never really heard from her before as she low-moans, “you’ve got to dig deep / when you give it to me / when you give it up / it’s not enough.” Now in her early forties, Jennifer squeezes out these lines with an earnest crotch-itch that the wanna-be-dirty young stars on today’s booty-vision screens could never dream of shaking loose.
Some of these ten songs also reuse one of Jennifer’s most endearing techniques from the past. Her quirky use of autotune technology to distort and warp her voice has been slightly refined since we first heard it on ‘Transmaniacon’ tracks like ‘Joint Chief’ and ‘PB + J.’ In a business where so many artists use this ‘innovation’ to disguise the flaws in their vocals (as if we don’t notice), Jennifer just sees it as a new toy to help reach her goal of muddied, odd delivery. On ‘Electric Brick Wall,’ autotune is used just like most groups would use a distortion pedal or pitch-shifter: not to disguise weaknesses, but to put the ear slightly on edge.
There’s still a tight little blues jam or two on offer here, and a track like ‘Highway Down’ exposes the roots of a band with some very traditional leanings. But as soon as it’s over, the twinkling, Jeff Lynne synths of ‘Eve’s Child’ come washing through, and Jennifer sings her street-wise ode to sadcool memories, completely throwing the sequence of songs for a loop. All this after a track like ‘Hey Rockin’ has dizzied us with distorted drum machine claps, Jennifer rapping (rapping!), and a great doom guitar riff lifted cleanly from Tommy Chong’s ‘Earache My Eye.’ All this gear shifting can make ‘Electric Brick Wall’ feel like a pretty bumpy ride for the first few listens, but Jennifer’s personality is the only transmission fluid it will ever need, as she puts us through our paces and leaves us smoking.
If anything distinguishes ‘Electric Brick Wall’ from Royal Trux, RTX, or earlier Black Bananas work, it’s probably Jennifer’s confidence in the studio to create just the right attitude for each song. Black Bananas are a pretty solid live act, but none of their performances posted on the Internet in the last few years sound anything like these ten songs. They’re essentially constructed as a metal band, and live, that’s pretty much the way they sound. On record though, these songs bring a distinctly fuzzy, funky, sexy, sticky, rough and ragged sound to the speakers that frankly won’t be found anywhere else. Open-minded fans of Jennifer’s past should appreciate it, and those new to the sound of her voice will find more to draw them in with this one. It’s easy to imagine ‘Electric Brick Wall’ being forgotten down the road, because it’s just so weird, and it gives the listener no possible frame of reference for what might come next, keeping even the seasoned JH admirer guessing at every turn. But it’s also easy to imagine that there’s some kind of breakthrough/crossover jam swimming in the middle of this ten-layer sandwich. The uninitiated just might hear one of these songs somewhere on shuffle play, ask someone, “Who is this?” and be answered with a name that unlocks two decades of greatness.