When did Dave Fridmann’s name become a brand, a cluster of moods and techniques, of fave performers and intended audiences, no less coherent than Tim Burton’s? Probably long enough ago that I’m revealing my age by even bringing it up, but either way, what the man’s doing clearly works: he merely mixes Flux Outside (the producer is Scott Minor of Sparklehorse, connect those dots), but the results are as reliably likable as, say, The Corpse Bride. In his smooth, powdery hands, generously funded by Glassnote Records, Knoxville trio Royal Bangs are a resolved paradox.
Frontman Ryan Schaefer — a sort of cathartic, adolescent Bono (or what-anthemist-have-you) venting a freshly broke heart — and his buddies began as a frenetic bar band; were spotted/endorsed/signed by The Black Keys’ Paul Carney; ‘discovered’ synthesizers and studio tomfoolery to make a taut and cheeky record in 2009’s Let It Beep; and have now tied a bow around themselves via tinkerer-by-trade Fridmann. You’ll smile and nod at the familiar elements: oceanic cymbals, guitars starched stiff, bubbling electronic abysses, keyboards vying to clinch the next “Kids.” In other words, the sound of this whirlwind of a new record meshes enough to suggest that its contradiction — between off-the-cuff rock/heartbreak and densely meditated sonics — is no contradiction at all. That is, I gather, the Fridmann Package Promise.
But though it might convey some sense of the group’s aesthetic, visualizing Royal Bangs as helplessly strung between their two main benefactors, Fridmann and Carney, overlooks the sheer quantity of sweat in this record. It’d be misleading to say that at this point they’ve ‘found their sound’: the majority of Flux Outside is as restless as ever. The difference, which may have to do with the sense that Fridmann’s got a dropdown of ‘FX favorites,’ is that this is the first Royal Bangs album to feel truly maximalist. Standard numbers like “Bull Elk” have a sort of flat awesomeness to them, with frantic banjo arpeggios one moment and barely-audible backwards choirs another. “Fireball” brandishes one of those “Kids”-vying keyboards exactly once after over a minute of instrumental handrubbing. All over the album, Schaefer’s handing off the mic like a relay baton to his past and future selves. No question this album is labored-over; dudes are clearly staple-gunning months and months of recording time.
As a result of this compression, by a sort of physics, Flux draws particular attention to its cavities — like “Dim Chamber’s” broad, warm piano, or, more accurately, the absence of much besides. “Back Then It Was Different” has a rickety cycle of chords and Chris Rusk’s constant drumrolls leading into nothing in particular, but the mere fact that the song doesn’t change its goddamn mind as it dives right into its earnest singalong outro makes it a pillar on the album. “Bad News, Strange Luck” emerges like a slow-burner, but its careful pacing earns it a chiptune orgasm that would’ve been lost in one of the cloudier songs. Such highlights share a couple traits. First, like Dave Fridmann’s most famous projects, the songs have big, youthful hearts (no line from Flux Outside will stick with you like “I wanted it so bad back then”); a cynic might say that Fridmann has deliberately rendered Royal Bangs most successful as a ‘Dave Fridmann band.’
Most significantly, the best songs emphasize Schaefer’s role as a melodicist, which he takes on gallantly, if sporadically. The album’s production betrays a certain insecurity on someone’s part about Schaefer as the group’s central personality, and I get where it comes from: he sings about every topic like it’s heartbreak — the first line, “woke up to the news,” could just as easily be a breakup, a friend’s death, or Fox — which might leave some listeners in the dust. Double-tracking and reverbing his voice softens its edges, and when he knows what he wants (or what he wanted back then), it resolves into tuneful, deeply felt neo-psych pieces.
On the trademark Royal Bangs workouts, however, Schaefer rarely sounds like he’s yelling into the sonic hurricane that rises up around him; instead, he sounds more like another piece of debris. The upshot is that what seems to be Royal Bangs’ self-satisfied larger-label debut is actually a transitional record fraught with internal tension and possible directions: either the group’s catharsis continues to bulge until its tendons snap and whip, or they simmer down and conquer college radio an album or two down the line. Or (c) other. The thrill of Flux Outside is that, if it had its way, it wouldn’t stick around either.