The typical U.S. Royalty song reaches conspicuously for something rich: a wave of cinematic energy, a slick FM-rock moment, a flicker of poetic satisfaction, or a reason to stand pensively on a cliff. On 2011’s Mirrors, the results verged on accidental self-parody at times; windswept seriousness or constant striving is risky business if your band is still growing into itself.
The followup, Blue Sunshine, sounds less naïve and more musically informed, as befits a local band that toured for a couple of years and then reportedly holed up for months to work out new material. But U.S. Royalty’s overall showiness hasn’t diminished. The tunes might be smarter, but they’re still dripping with excess ambition.
Consider the title track, which borrows extensively and effectively from high-drama ’80s pop (synths, string section, etc.), and packs some of the panache of Cold War Kids’ “Hang Me Up to Dry.” When singer John Thornley gets to the following lyrics, though, the song slides from escapism into something more like camp: “I was lost in a landscape of pleasure/Endlessly prolonged/Left to feel everything all at once/Till I felt nothing at all.” The next verse contains the phrase “flaming pyre.” It’s all too much.
Likewise, the Mumfordesque “Into the Thicket” and “Get On Home” prove to be more haughty than touching, and the album closer “Two Worlds” revisits the ’80s pop/rock parade with a surplus of Broadway. There’s a spoken/sung verse toward the end (“Youth and isolation/They go hand in hand”) that might be intended as a New Romantic homage but ultimately sounds jokey.
Even when the band tries to emphasize pure rock ’n’ roll energy, there are distractions. “Lady in Waiting,” with its thick bottom end and sure-handed, tightly wound guitar lead by Paul Thornley (the singer’s brother), has the basic blueprint of a durable anthem—but the vocals (including some whoo-ooh-oohs) seem theatrical, not communal, as if the song is for audiences to merely witness, not internalize. The faster “Only Happy in the Country” and “Valley of the Sun” have similar whoah-oh-oh/eh-oh problems, and elsewhere, “South Paradiso” is basically a killer chorus surrounded and trivialized by a too-cheeky surf-rock groove.
A few tracks largely survive the stagecraft: The subdued “Breathless” is the closest U.S. Royalty has come to communicating an easygoing sense of romance; Paul Thornley’s acoustic-guitar instrumental “De Profundis” is a bit too busy but nonetheless respectfully honors pickers like John Fahey; and “Slow Magic” takes the right lessons from bands like The Church or The Ocean Blue—it soars without completely sucking the air from the room. Those three songs, more than many of the others, also leave space for the listener to do some projecting—to buy into U.S. Royalty’s ambition, instead of being forced to absorb it.
The band plays Jan. 25 at Rock & Roll Hotel.