Most of the time, as the story goes, a band cleans up its sound to lead to a bigger audience. But when San Francisco frantic-folk duo the Dodos were recruited by noted Northwest indie-rock producer Phil Ek (Built to Spill, the Shins, Fleet Foxes) to record their potential 2009 breakthrough, Time to Die, the exact opposite happened. The record, despite containing a few of the band’s best songs, was received with a critical shrug and a crowd peeved that the band traded in its unstoppable energy for a neutered, safe sound. So instead of playing it safe again, the band—guitarist-singer Meric Long and drummer Logan Kroeber—reconnected with an old stable: Portland producer and friend John Askew.

"The understanding that we have between each other is crucial," Kroeber says of the Dodos' relationship with Askew. "We got lost making weird, stupid noises. We allowed ourselves the time to goof off more, and sometimes us goofing off on something that didn't sound so promising at the beginning ended up being a really killer song."

The collaboration yielded No Color, the San Francisco band's third album recorded in Portland and easily its most insistent. While Time to Die traded the band's signature sound—a bluesy, expansive kind of folk pop where Kroeber's rattling percussion battles Long's acoustic finger-picking for breathing room—for a spot on a Starbucks countertop, No Color successfully advances the Dodos' sound while retaining the raw intimacy of its past glories. Long and Kroeber (plus vibraphonist Keaton Snyder, who was mostly edited out of the sessions) spent the tail end of summer in town, recording at Type Foundry and Askew's own Scenic Burrows studio by day and riding bikes and crashing on friends' couches at night.

That laid-back spirit carries over to No Color. There's nothing quite as immediate as "Fools," the quasi-hit that earned the Dodos some advertising money after it was featured in a spot for Miller Chill, but it features Long's sturdiest—and most aggressive—songwriting to date. Opener "Black Night" climbs toward the rafters on Kroeber's relentless pounding and a newfound commitment to guitar feedback, finally segueing into the gorgeous "Going Under" after four minutes. "Good" and "Hunting Season" transition from stomping verses to pretty, melodic choruses, and Long's singing is now a perfect balance of sincere and menacing. Half of the record also features Neko Case on backing vocals, but her brassy voice never gets in the way of the band's uncomplicated arrangements.

No Color is also amped up by the addition of electric guitar and an increased reliance on rhythmic interplay. "Our songwriting key is finding something that feels good and sounds good and just playing it for a really long time," Kroeber says, chuckling. "This one was all about figuring out ways to expand that basic groove." Only one track on the album slows things down: Penultimate song "Companions" eschews volume for restraint, finger-picking, and a series of surprising but notable harmonies.

The juxtaposition between folk traditions and experimentation has always lain at the heart of the band. Before Kroeber and Long met in 2005 in the Bay Area, Kroeber was mostly involved with heavy-metal projects, and Long dabbled in West African Ewe drumming. Though only traces of the duo's past exist in the Dodos' current setup, its vast musical training leads to sounds that constantly push the boundaries of what a "folk" band can do.

"When Meric started doing all these crazy [guitar] leads and adding harmonies in the studio, I thought, 'This isn't shaping up how I imagined it,'" Kroeber says. "I think we made a prog-folk record, and we're both really stoked to say that.” 

SEE IT: The Dodos play Tuesday, April 5, at Doug Fir with Reading Rainbow. 9 pm. $15. 21+.