The Kingsbury Manx: Let You Down

[18 September 2001]

By James Beaudreau

The new Kingsbury Manx CD, Let You Down, unfolds and spreads like an atmosphere and hangs in the air like architecture to inhabit. The music is rural and haunted, and in every corner and under every eave of the songs, restlessness confronts comfort and doubt challenges safety. It’s an intimate record, from the squeak of the bass drum pedal to the sound of fingers on steel guitar strings, but it is also grand and detached and features beautiful orchestrations of guitars, voices and keyboards that are subtle and unpretentious.

The CD can be soothing as a lullaby and unsettling at the same time. The juxtaposition is illustrated lyrically in snapshots of comfort, ease and warmth offset by disappointment, foreboding, and distrust of safety. The music is unerringly lyrical and tonal, and dressed in warmly recorded instruments beautifully orchestrated. The combination of lyrics with music produces a compelling mixture of beauty and doubt. On the whole, the CD is the sonic equivalent of a cold and swirling, star-filled winter night in the country.

The songs are repetitive in their structure, and make full statements with a minimum of well-explored musical ideas. In addition to the vocal melodies, there are usually melodies being carried by a guitar or a keyboard. The songs are also linked by key. Seven of the twelve songs are in the key of E; one each in the nearby keys of A, B, and F#m; and a connected pair in G. This link lends a sense of familiarity and continuity between songs, and creates for the listener a sense of being settled. Another source of the album’s continuity is that the melodies of the songs often use the same somewhat unusual resting intervals of 6, 7, and 9, and often feature the even odder intervals of #5 and #11. That’s a technical way of saying that the melodies, especially in the vocals and guitars, often sound exotic, but not in an easily identifiable way.

Lyrically, the album describes pastoral scenes undercut by hints of worry, frustration and doubt. Loss is painted in scenes that describe solitude and isolation juxtaposed with images of intimacy and closeness. Stories are suggested. We are given the framework of images: a couple’s imprints in the grass, a porch light left on for days, rustic stairs to darkened homes, the smell of a fireplace, and a view of sand dunes from a window, for example, but not a narrative. One moment a song is about “us” and the next it’s about “me”, and it changes back again. It suggests that the beginning of a story is intertwined with, and told at the same time as, the end of a story. Time is elastic and we can construct events and a narrative as we wish, or we can just enjoy the swirl of the music.

The lyrics often return to a question of how to live. There are straightforward meditations on attempts to turn from a harder way of life to a simpler one, and “Do What You’re Told” may weigh the merits of living in your own way against living by prescribed means. And it may not. The lyrics’ best quality is that they are rich enough in imagery and situation to make the listener wonder about their meaning, but evasive enough to avoid definitive literal interpretation, as the best rock lyrics are.

The music is well recorded, and the band sounds good. Layered acoustic guitars are strummed and finger-picked, and electric guitar sounds range from reverb-saturated slide guitar, pinging delayed melodies, and warmly tremoloed strummed chords. Assisting the guitars is a tasteful and well-integrated Moog, a piano, and, on one occasion, a flute and hand drums. The drummer is inventive and pushes the band on some songs and accompanies with brushes and a shimmering riveted cymbal on others. Most melodies are sung in unison and harmony, making the odd solo vocal stand out.

“Sleeping on the Ground” features a solo vocal, and is a standout track for its intimacy and beauty. Two acoustic guitars support the most delicate and directly affecting melody on the record. As many great songs do, it has a quality of being familiar at first listen. On the other side of the album’s spectrum, “Arun” calls to mind “Broken Arrow” from Buffalo Springfield Again and “That’s the Way” from Led Zeppelin III. It features lavish and perfectly balanced orchestration.

These two songs alone would warrant notice of a band that not only has great songs and instrumental talent, but has a sound all its own. The album is remarkable for sustaining and developing a subtle and constantly shifting mood for 40 minutes and never breaking the spell.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/kingsburymanx-let/