When a band is tagged with the “Americana” label, it’s usually because the musical output possesses a quaint, folksy vibe that is steeped in nostalgic imagery of the good ole’ days but also easily accessible to a modern demographic of listeners. The tunes are usually heavy on charm but sadly, also light on originality. Played well, the genre can evoke sentiments of simpler times with simple messages, but if the gesture is too grandiose, you’re likely to get something that sounds like a parody of the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. It takes the skill of an act like Arizona’s Calexico – a band so steeped in authentic Americana that it has practically become synonymous with the American Southwest landscape – to produce the type of homespun flavor that is genuinely convincing where most others would’ve sounded like a contrived mimicry.
You can add Boston’s Kingsley Flood to the shortlist of artists who are making a fresh mark on the genre; the five-piece’s richly layered songcraft is both absorbing and challenging, admirably walking that fine line between true grit and satire. Though a far cry from the Tex-Mex symbolism of Calexico, the bands do share a dust and tumbleweed approach to songwriting, crafting songs that maintain a brittle edginess about them as they roam the open road. On their upcoming debut LP, Kingsley Flood’s founding member and lead vocalist, Naseem Khuri, sings with the same wispy and beaten down inflection that recalls vintage Bob Dylan or a more sandpaper-y Jeff Tweedy. Multi-instrumentalist Michael Spaly expertly peppers the songs with dashes of banjo, mandolin, and violin while the rhythm section and guitars lay down grooves fit for a hootenanny.
The album fades in with “Back in the Back,” a tune that uses the same sounds that made an epilogue out of “Marais la Nuit” on Neko Case’s 2009 album, Middle Cyclone: the lulling sounds of crickets and peepers near a pond. Quickly though, one of Spaly’s bluesy fiddle melodies kicks in, as does a bass line from Nick Balkin that skips more than it walks. The song also features some ole’ timey “ooh” and “aah” back up vocals and defiant lyrics from Khuri like, “I am a sinner’s saint / I may not be good / but I ain’t no slave.”
“Cul de Sac” contains one of the album’s best singalong choruses, as Khuri sings ““I’ve got my thumb on the pulse of a nation” atop a bedrock of rollicking drums, anxious mandolin, and even some trumpet licks from guest performer Chris Barrett. The song’s urgent pacing creates a wonderfully stark contrast to the cut that follows it; “Cathedral Walls” almost sounds like a lost track from Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, where pristine guitar solos and mellow vibes evoke the polished tone of 70’s soft rock. “Good Enough” continues the breezy vibes, where Khuri’s sing-song vocals and some choice slide work from Spaly are the only things needed to drive home the sentimental depths of the song’s narrative (“Her shoes look like ones that you once wore / with a broken buckle jingling on the dance floor.”)
At the album’s core are two of the band’s most impassioned and affecting numbers: mincing beguiling lyrics (“I grew a mustache by age nine / by sixteen I owned the world”) with fiddle melodies and banjo countermelodies, “Stoop Cats” is every bit as memorable as “Cul de Sac,” but without the hint Arcade Fire-style chamber pop. “Devil’s Arms” would’ve been great performance material at a speakeasy. At times its sound harkens back to the golden days of country music, with furiously picked banjo arpeggiations and harmonized vocals that are shouted rather than sung.
Kingsley Flood shows no weak points on Dust Windows; it’s an expertly paced listen from beginning to end, contrasting devil-may-care bravado with sullen tales of isolation. For a fine example of this, just check out the closing pair of “When I Grow Up” and “Just a Midnight Ride.” The first is an earsplitting blues stomper that, for a brief moment, recalls Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” But it’s the grand finale, with its admission of loneliness and dependence on material happiness (“I got me a Cadillac and it’s real nice / it’s real nice / I keep it out front and not out back / I like the shine”) that cuts the deepest.