It’s safe to say that those of us turned off by the repetitive sheen of most top 40 pop have welcomed the acoustic revolution spearheaded by the likes of Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers. On the other hand, anyone reared on rock ’n’ roll can’t help but find himself longing, at least a little bit, for a world beyond the banjos and mandolins. Doesn’t anybody own an amp anymore?
With that as the backdrop, Kingsley Flood’s new LP, “Battles,” arrives with a wild, welcome kick. The Boston group’s 2010 LP “Dust Windows” had more of a traditional Americana feel, but last year’s EP “Colder Still” started to incorporate indie rock elements into their rustic sound.
With “Battles,” they’ve made the full leap into guitar-based rock while holding on to their down-home authenticity. That’s a trick for any band, particularly a young one, and it’s hard to overstate exactly how well Kingsley Flood does it here.
A good portion of the credit has to go to George Hall’s stellar guitar work, which is accomplished without being showy – it jangles through tracks like the Mersey-tinged “Sun’s Gonna Let Me Shine,” while on the driving “Down,” his psychedelic bursts complement Chris Barrett’s trumpet blasts to pull the song squarely into the stratosphere. As for the sort-of title track “Pick Your Battles,” Hall’s hopped-up blues riffs combine with Naseem Khuri’s roiling garage-rock keyboards to searing effect.
But none of this would be half as effective if the songs weren’t actually about something. Kingsley Flood’s secret weapon is Khuri’s pitch-perfect lyrics, which pack an incredible breadth of imagery and emotion into their spare stanzas, delivered in a quirky, urgent rasp that anchors them solidly in the here and now. The songs on “Battles” speak to a modern American dream that’s constantly in danger of being pulled under by forces beyond our control, from inside and out.
In fact, Khuri’s lyrics actually owe a lot to Springsteen, with their references to inner struggles and sullen fathers, not to mention dirty hands and bills unpaid. In that vein, “Waiting On The River To Rise” is a perfectly realized painting of a man struggling to keep afloat despite God’s apparent indifference: “Scratch tickets on my shelf, stains on my knees, pennies in my well,” he sings. “I got faith in faith, because the other choice is no choice at all.”
On other tracks, he grapples with the lure of voices that tell him to “get low” – “I’ll hold up high my chin and welcome sin on in,” he sings on “Sun’s Gonna Let Me Shine,” and among the jaunty piano, strings and horns on “King’s Men,” he seems to accept the inevitability of a great fall: “Look in the broken mirror; it’s only a matter of time.”
Broken mirrors, bent knees and chins raised in the face of inescapable adversity pop up frequently on “Battles,” with some of the most effective imagery coming during the disc’s quieter moments: On “Sigh A While,” Khuri sings of “our eyes on the horizon, but a lollipop stuck to the floor,” his quietly desperate vocals perfectly counter-pointed by Jenee Morgan’s sweetly realized harmonies.
Such ambitious songwriting is always in danger of sliding into the obtuse, and it happens on occasion here. “The sleepwalker never falls down, the wax wing never hits the ground,” Khuri sings cryptically on “Habit,” one of the album’s few meandering tracks.
But for the most part, “Battles” has just the right combination of uncompromising lyrical heft and explosive musicality, and stands to position Kingsley Flood as the ideal rock act for the new millennium: a little kinder than some, perhaps, but by no means gentler.