Let’s start with the good things: Flux Outside, Royal Bangs’ third album, opens on a brilliant note. “Grass Helmet,” with its frenetic drumming, vocals pushing toward bliss, and unflagging energy, taps into the same vein of post-ELO pop ecstasy as, say, The New Pornographers or Quasi’s American Gong. Dave Fridmann’s production contrasts oddly hollow sounds with others that seem immeasurably dense. At its peak, this album marries the band’s unexpected take on a traditional sound with stylized production, and it clicks perfectly. When things don’t entirely gel, though, the production seems outsized in comparison with the songwriting.
The cut-time opening of “Bull Elk” mixes a half-dozen approaches to percussion in its first minute before crashing chords take over. Ryan Schaefer’s voice goes to some unexpected places here -- as with Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle, his approach is less about full-throatedly embracing rock heroics and more singing around the notes, finding interesting, left-field spaces to fill in. The riffs and progressions may soar, but Schaefer’s approach suggests something of the outsider, with a wariness to cliché.
At other times, the album doesn’t rise above the elevator-pitch version of Royal Bangs’ sound -- power-pop gone eclectic. Certain songs stand out, while others fade in to a solid but uniform blend of bold keyboards and fuzzed-out rhythms. The fraying at the edges of their sound suggests a studio equivalent to an intentionally ragged live sound, and it does suggest that Royal Bangs have a live show worth watching. But the reverse of that is also true: parts of Flux Outside that might be revelatory in a live setting sound constrained here. But it’s the shifts in the sound that win out in the end. This an album worth returning to.