As a member of the full-frontal folk-punk assault that was the Monads, Pat Eagan played his fair share of hard-strumming guitar parts and joined in the chorus of spirited and irreverent bluegrass harmonies. But the Monads are no more (save the rare one-off reunion), Eagan has been leading Royal Smokestacks since last year, putting his amped-up Americana to use with a lineup of banjo, drums, keys and acoustic guitar. Eagan keeps one foot in his old band's style and one foot in something more electric and more beat-driven on the Royal Smokestacks' self-titled record.
The debut has the charm of a basement recording and the thoughtful arrangement of a studio piece. Eagan puts some space around his vocals so that the songs have a live, in-the-room feel, though a few times Ryan Humphrey's keyboards threaten to overwhelm everything else around them. With drummer Kevin Kwater behind the drum kit and banjoist/percussionist Miles Long filling in on standup cocktail drums, the rhythms most often rely on a steady train-beat, a boom-chicka-boom that give a propulsive, repetitive thrust to songs like opening cut "I Could Build a Building." (Fellow plucker Brian Bauer plays lead banjo, as it were, on the album, though he and Humphrey have since left the band.) That rhythm works for the band, mostly, as it gives fire to Eagan's forceful, if occasionally faltering, vocals. "Dawn," the sole ballad on the album, gets incrementally better as the band moves past a few sing-songy clichés and pushes the song's simmering gospel pulse to a boil.
If the album tilts too much toward twang-rock convention, penultimate track "One by One" suggests what is possible by using the band's unconventional instrumentation and emphasis on something less traditional. With slight distortion on Eagan's acoustic guitar and big, enveloping organ chords swathing the track in Hammond grease, the band is freed from predictable rhythms and can use its two-drummer approach to stretch out. "Crying Wolf" ends the album in a similar fashion, albeit with a major-key lift. In that sense, the record works as a progression of Eagan's growth from the bash-'em-out roots rock of the Monads to a songwriter who can tinker with Americana but not be bound to its rhythms and retreads.