To watch her on stage today, it's hard to imagine Alicja Trout as a proper St. Mary's girl from the manicured environs of East Memphis. But that's where it all began. First St. Mary's, then boarding school, then the ivy-covered walls of Rhodes College, where she studied philosophy and art. And then one day, and seemingly from nowhere, Ms. Prep School decided she wanted to be a rock star. She revved up her image as easily as she might craft one of the cool art figurines she used to make so very well. And let there be no doubt, a "rock star" is what she became. Not a "musician" or "scenester."
She hit the stage fully grown, with the look, the voice, the moves, the chops, and -- perhaps more importantly -- the attitude. From her earliest days as a black-PVC-clad goddess in the new-wavish trio the Clears, she was a showoff navigating a course between Kate Bush's ethereal warbling and the gutter-bred growl of Joan Jett. Over the last decade, she's exchanged the S&M look for battered jeans and trashed concert tees and has evolved into the most versatile and prolific female performer in the big boy's club of Memphis rock-and-roll.
In that same period, Trout has lent her talents to Mouserocket, the Lost Sounds, the Ron Franklin Entertainers, the C.C. Riders (with Jeff Evans), Nervous Patterns, the Fitts, Bare Wires, Destruction Unit, Black Sunday, and, until the death of '60s psych pioneer Arthur Lee earlier this year, she even played with Jack Yarber and Ron Franklin in the newly re-formed version of Love. For reasons both personal and practical, Trout now focuses the majority of her energy on the River City Tanlines, a powerful, rhythm-heavy garage-punk trio whose singles comp All the Seven Inches was, perhaps, the most heavily rocking Memphis release of 2005. The Tanlines' newest CD, I'm Your Negative, is more cleanly produced, showcasing all the subtleties that sometimes get lost in the crush of this little band's big, big sound.
"After a period of time, you stop worrying about how you look," Trout says of the time she's spent as a feminine centerpiece in Memphis' overwhelmingly male rock scene. "You're playing like the boys, and you just don't give a fuck. It may sound backwards, but when you stop caring, when you don't care at all, when you stop worrying about being judged for how you look or whether or not you play a certain way, it feels good and it is good.
"When I decided to pick up the pieces after the Lost Sounds [broke up], the River City Tanlines is what worked," Trout says, explaining why, with so many musical projects to choose from, she's devoted so much time to the trio, which pairs Trout with the veteran local rhythm section of bassist Terrence Bishop and drummer John "Bubba" Bonds.
"For starters, this band picked everything up so fast. We had good energy -- and I mean literal, physical energy, not 'cosmic energy.' And it's practical because with gas prices so high, and renting vans, it's a whole lot easier to tour a three-person band than a five-person band."
Trout says she hates the term "garage-punk" but uses it to describe the Tanlines because, if overused and imperfect, it gives people at least some general sense of what to expect. "Punk doesn't work," she says, expressing a frustration with the nomenclature of various guitar-rock genres. "Even rock-and-roll doesn't work." Attempting to define the Tanlines' sound, she says, "I don't know. We're not limited."
Comparing I'm Your Negative to All the Seven Inches is a case of night and day. The singles collection, raw and raunchy, sounded like a live show by Southern cousins of the Ramones and the Stooges. I'm Your Negative is a technically clean studio product highlighting not only the band's punch but also its simple punk virtuosity.
"If you try to do your live sound on an album, it doesn't hold up, and it gets monotonous," Trout says. "I wanted the songs on I'm Your Negative to jump around [among] a lot of different styles. It's more poppy at times. It hints at a return to all of the music that originally appealed to me. The melody is simple."
Trout really doesn't care what anybody thinks anymore. And it really does seem to be a good thing.
"With this CD -- for the first time ever, I think -- I really don't care what happens with it. Because I'm really happy with it."