No little girls were harmed in the making of Royal Baths' full-length debut. No fingernails were pulled out, no veins slashed, no moaning apparitions captured and made to spill their woe. Though Litanies sounds like a torture chamber run by the Velvet Underground, its ghostly howls and dejected mumblings emanate solely from songwriters Jeremy Cox and Jigmae Baer, a former drummer for Thee Oh Sees. The result is bewildering. "A lot of people actually mistake me for a girl," Cox explains over the phone from somewhere in Illinois. You might mistake him for a girl having nails hammered through her hands — and all the while thinking it was ironic.
Songs like "After Death," "Bad Heart," and "I Detest" sag with two singers' worth of suffering, one voice often a breathy falsetto. The gap in pitch between the chatty mutterings of Cox and Baer supplies a sadistic charm, keeping the listener at a somewhat safe distance from the anger and loathing. There are allusions to grim details later confirmed in ways that could be funny: "I got a bad heart," one voice sings (having just come from the doctor, he means it literally) before the other insists, "Yes, you do." There are ominous affirmations: "After death, got to stand the test." There are wry quips: "This agitation has me singing sweetly." Theirs is a pretty sort of grind, bolstered by crackling, linear guitars and the distant, hellish pulse of dry tom-toms. It's also sincere: "A lot of people are afraid of sensitivity these days," Cox says, but certainly the members of Royal Baths are not. Their sum total is a mocking diary of self-dismantlement, too fucked up to care about looking cool, disgusted with itself for being so disgusted with everything else. "If you're not always feeling happy, you should project that into your music," Cox says matter-of-factly. Consider it done.
One recent source of the members' unhappiness: a debacle that forced the changing of their original name, Baths. Cox claims he and Baer began using the name more than 18 months ago after finding no other bands with it. They later got a message from one Will Wiesenfeld, an L.A. beatmaker, asking if he could continue using the name Baths for his bedroom pop project. "We basically just told him no, that it wasn't alright to use the name," Cox says. "He just ignored that message and continued to release a record." Wiesenfeld's debut, Cerulean, is now hailed as a triumph of the L.A. scene. So Cox and Baer added the "Royal" to their name, delaying the release of their own debut, and are still miffed about it.
But there is a lot for the four members of this S.F. band to be cheerful about. After touring with local garage maestro Ty Segall, Royal Baths recently hit the road with the Fresh & Onlys for a string of shows that included a stop at Shea Stadium in Brooklyn. Litanies came out on Woodsist, a beloved New York indie label, and manages to sound different from the band's local peers. There's barely a whiff of frayed '60s pop among its midnight sprees. While it's clear that Royal Baths listened to the Velvet Underground and Neil Young, Litanies stands out in its slow-boil sound and personal subject matter. "I always thought it would be kind of a crime to create something that's a mirror image of everything that's right next to you," Cox says. Instead, Royal Baths sound like a crime being committed.