Knoxville's Royal Bangs takes yacht rock in new, mature directions on their latest 

Minute by Minute

Minute by Minute

Rock formalism doesn't come any more full-bodied than Royal Bangs' latest full-length, Brass — the Knoxville band fabricates its hybrid of yacht rock and progressive rock with verve and intelligence. What makes Brass a stupendous achievement is the way Royal Bangs' formal mastery gives resonance to lyrics about the minute-by-minute changes and challenges of young adulthood. Cut in Nashville with production by Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, Brass exemplifies pop music's ability to create alternate realities by emphasizing mundane details — every skewed guitar riff and funky keyboard lick contributes to pop that is both glossy and hard-edged.

Royal Bangs delivered Brass late last year after recording the tracks with Carney, who had already released the group's first two full-lengths. The Bangs' 2008 debut, We Breed Champions, was a frenetic example of virtuosic rock bricolage — the tempo shifts and high-strung backing vocals of the record's "Russia Goodbye" suggested a synthesis of Queen and power pop, while "Brother" cooked with rockabilly and glam-rock ingredients. The new record's more straightforward music represents a departure from the dense sound of their three previous collections, as Royal Bangs vocalist and songwriter Ryan Schaefer takes pains to point out.

"What's funny about this record is that this is our most experimental record, in a way," Schaefer says. "It's all stuff that we're uncomfortable with, like tracking live, not overdubbing everything. On the last record [2011's Flux Outside], the recording sessions were crazy, and every song had tons of tracks on it — it was really hard to make, and it was a really big, weird-sounding record."

Schaefer was born in Knoxville in 1985, and met future Royal Bangs drummer Chris Rusk while they were attending Farragut High School. They began playing with guitarist Sam Stratton in 2005, and released their home-recorded debut through the auspices of Carney's Audio Eagle label. Their 2009 followup, Let It Beep, featured more of the group's evocations of prog rock. Flux Outside further illustrated Royal Bangs' ability to counterpose oddball guitar licks and Rusk's superb drumming in structures that suggested a fusion of punk rock, Southern boogie and prog.

Brass really does synthesize and reinvigorate any number of late-'70s and early-'80s rock styles — it sounds like Schaefer & Co. spent a couple of years absorbing Pablo Cruise, Michael McDonald, Steely Dan and, for all I know, Rupert Holmes and Jay Ferguson. With bassist Dylan Dawkins providing counterpoint to Rusk's controlled use of sprung rhythms, Brass is revisionist rock with soul, panache and a deft way with the killer hook. The amazing "Laurel" lopes along like Silk Degrees-era Boz Scaggs, while "Hope We Don't Crash" sports one of the band's typically terse, addictive riffs.

"I think it's pretty obvious that it's different from what we've done before," Schaefer says of Brass. "We used to build up the songs from samples and sounds and everything, with mixing in mind, doing a lot of it right in the studio. This time, we just tried to make it about the songs, you know, and cut it mostly live, so it was a quick record to make, and it was fun to make."

It's a record that's fun to listen to — if the yacht rock of the '70s was a high-gloss, pop-friendly version of soul music, Brass plays upon the form's conventions without condescension. "Octagon" takes the musical elements of a vintage Chicago or Steely Dan record and breathes new life into them — as Schaefer sings, "It's not too late yet to give up our dreams / Live in the real world, get a job / And go to sleep." It's what you could call serious fun, and proves that formalists don't have to lose their souls in order to succeed.




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