Review, U.S. Royalty's 'Mirrors': New kings of District-band buzz sound familiar

By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 24, 2011; 10:54 PM

U.S. Royalty's first full-length disc, "Mirrors," comes out Tuesday, but the Washington, D.C.-based group is already Internet-famous. In recent months it has received the sort of mainstream attention that District bands rarely get, decorating the Web sites of Esquire and Spin and appearing in fashion campaigns and on best-dressed lists like some District-bred version of the Strokes (if the Strokes had ponchos and beards and listened to Fleet Foxes instead of Iggy Pop).

"Mirrors" isn't a flame-throwing mission statement of a debut; its considerable strengths lie in its ability to synthesize a wide swath of influences into something catchy and palatable, something so good that its excessive familiarity almost doesn't matter. While often remarkable and occasionally diffident, "Mirrors" has the band sounding more like other bands than it does like itself. Among the acts U.S. Royalty is said to resemble: Band of Horses (kind of), the Black Keys (not really) and Fleet Foxes (maybe a little).

You can hear the influence of spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone in the arid sprawl of "The Desert Won't Save You." And you can hear the influence of the Killers everywhere. Because these days, any band wanting to mingle ringing guitars, '80s new-wave and diluted Americana has to go through the Killers first. They hover over "Mirrors" like a bad dream.

"Mirrors" wants to Say Things: It wants to be the soundtrack to a freshman backpacker's European summer vacation (as evidenced by the stately "Monte Carlo," which takes up where Coldplay's "Don't Panic" left off). It wants to offer a Didion-like dissertation on the shallowness of Los Angeles (the slinky "Hollywood Hollows," which opens the disc after the brief instrumental "The Mirror"). It wants to propel U.S. Royalty into the ranks of famous preppy crossover bands such as Passion Pit ("Equestrian," subtle and sublime), and it just might.

But parts of it are undercooked. The tilt-a-whirl folk track "Fool to Love (Like I Do)" is a straight-faced take on bad '60s psych/garage rock that sounds as if it came from another album, one that raises more questions (why would anyone want to do a straight-faced take on bad '60s psych/garage rock?) than it answers. And there are too many metaphoric references to mountains, oceans, suns, moons, dreams and horizons to count. Lead singer John Thornley, who founded the band with guitarist brother Paul, has an anonymous post-rock voice that buoys the disc's heavier songs but also adds to its air of dislocation.

"Mirrors" is broader than it is great, less substantial than it could have been and too reminiscent of works by a dozen of the band's lesser, more faceless peers. U.S. Royalty plainly has bigger career ambitions in mind, though just what they might be isn't much clearer at the end of "Mirrors" than it was at the beginning.

Stewart is a freelance writer.

Recommended tracks: "Equestrian," "Monte Carlo," "Old Flames"

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