For a band hailing from North Carolina with a new album title seemingly pilfered from the Drive By Truckers, Kingsbury Manx doesn’t sound very Southern; no whisky-and-regret fueled DBT rock or the alt-countryesque stylings of fellow North Carolinians Whiskeytown here. Color me duped. (Also adding to the confusion is the KM’s newfound tenancy with Yep Roc—an upstart label challenging the venerable Bloodshot for alt-country/Americana supremacy.) Of course, folks familiar with the band’s three previous albums know that Kingsbury Manx traffic in pastoral, almost British quasi-shoegaze, and on The Fast Rise and Fall of the South, Kingsbury Manx continues further down that musical avenue, with mixed results.
The Fast Rise recalls the likes of late ‘60s Kinks (that is to say, the Kinks at their most pastoral) or, more recently, the more folksy/less freaky side of the Coral. And whole those are accurate points of reference, they don’t do Kingsbury Manx any favors, as the band’s songs can’t measure up with those of the aforementioned Brits.
But rather than decry the band for what it isn’t, let’s investigate what it is: a quiet, friendly indie pop band. Kingsbury Manx has toured with Elliot Smith—at his behest—and gotten Wilco’s Mikael Jorgensen to co-produce The Fast Rise (they’ll also be touring with Wilco this fall)... so they’re doing something right, and tunes like the carefree “Ruins”, “1000 8” and the piano-bouncy “900 Years” bear witness to that fact. Still, the album feels calculated.
For instance, they take a song about inanimate objects coming to life—“Oh No”—and it’s neither funny nor dread-inducing; I like the “bumbum” backing vocals, but otherwise the tune doesn’t live up to its promising premise. In fact, the band spends a lot of time in the warm-sounding-but-not-that-fun universe: There’s an air of resignation permeating the opener, “Harness and Wheel”, and it hangs over the rest of the album. Sometimes that mood works—the character sketch of the bored-with-each-other couple in “What a Shame” is underscored nicely by doleful horns, and the precious waltz of “Snow Angel Dance” should make their labelmates the Sadies sit up and take notice—but too much of the album fails to leave an impression.
Speaking of impressions, lead singer/primary songwriter Bill Taylor is a dead ringer for the Kinks’ Ray Davies. It’s uncanny at times. And, as mentioned above, Kingsbury Manx is clearly striving to emulate the Kinks circa Village Green Preservation Society (going so far as to namecheck the album in the press kit); they come close on “Zero G”, which begs to be listened to while walking through the woods on a quiet fall day, but they’re missing the catchy hummable tunes to rival, say, “Picture Book” or “Johnny Thunder”. As it stands right now, The Fast Rise and Fall of the South is little more than a shantytown on the Village Green.