Before they were known for their hyperkinetic prog-pop, Royal Bangs were just a bunch of high-schoolers from Knoxville who chose to pass the time by ripping riffs. What transpired next was the stuff of every pubescent rocker’s dream: the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney stumbled upon the band’s Myspace, dug their ramshackle rock, and released their scuzzy debut three years later on his Audio Eagle label.
Since then, Royal Bangs’ sound has tended to stray from the simple. Their most recent record, 2011’s Flux Outside, was the aural equivalent of a whiskey-fueled riff-off between Kings Of Leon and Battles: mathy, southern-fried, stream of consciousness jams. But even experimentalists like to take it easy sometimes. Brass, the quartet’s latest full-length, trades the overstuffed feel of their past for a calmer, cleaner sound that hearkens to the band’s embryonic years. Steeped in classic rock and ‘70s Americana, Brass stands as Royal Bangs’ first traditional rock album, as opposed to an LP sui generis.
Carney’s production pares down the whiz-kid solos and quirky electronic arrangements, instead placing a premium on hooks, which is good, because Royal Bangs are damn good at that. Opener and lead single Better Run makes for the perfect fall anthem, fronted by a dual assault of jangly guitars and echoey piano plonks. Tracks like Sun Bridge and 100 Years lean towards the pugnacious proto-punk of your favorite dive: aggressive but not intimidating. Think a more muscular Ben Folds Five.

Occasionally, the band’ll revert back to classic kookiness, like the pixelated, arpeggiated riffs that surface halfway through Not-Imagined Nothingness or Laurel‘s atypical backbeat. But aside from these occasional oddities, Brass tends to stick to the solid, safe, verse-chorus-verse playbook—paradigms that, for all their universality, can’t help but scan as redundant. More than half of the LP is filled by ho-hum, heartland-inspired ballads that, while by no means abysmal, are still pretty nondescript: snoozers with homespun titles like Window Loops Of America, Orange Moon, and CA Heart Attack. Others, like Not-Imagined Nothingness, sport Carney’s influence so strongly, they’d make for convincing Black Keys B-sides.
For those who like their rock without all the frills and fills, these comparisons might not be deal-breakers. But for fans of the band’s mathier material, Brass may seem unsettlingly sparse, even dumbed-down. There’s no doubt that Royal Bangs are fully capable of splicing a broader set of influences into their quixotic mix, and Brass offers several great glimpses into a sonic evolution in progress. It’s just a shame that the metamorphosis isn’t quite complete.