For years now, the North Carolina-based Kingsbury Manx has been putting out sun-drenched and brilliant records that aren’t interested in pressing for innovation or kowtowing to trends. This band is all about melody, all about the hook, and when these four guys get together they yield a beautiful sound. And Ascenseur Ouvert! is just another piece of brilliant yet understated dreamy pop.
The title, which translates loosely from French into the command “Elevator Open!,” sets up an album full of elevation. These songs spread out and rise, building on humble beginnings into sounds that don’t always grow bigger, but do thicken and tangle upon themselves into heady but infectious soundscapes. Few bands are as good as the Kingsbury Manx at meshing hazy atmosphere with tight melody, and they never sacrifice craft for feeling, or vice versa.
The front-porch sway of opener “Walk on Water” could just be a folk ditty, but guitars twang and curl in the space around the song, leaving room for the warm fuzz of an organ to fill in the holes. “Well, Whatever” is all quick, country shuffle, but crumbling guitar riffs scattered throughout it break up the comfort of its breathy quiet. The dusty balladry of “Crest” swells and strains with strings and gives us one of many towering and beautiful choruses on Asccenseur Ouvert!
This album, like the band’s other discs, could succeed just on its base parts. As pure, stripped-down country- or folk-touched pop, these songs are fine. But the band is never content to keep things simple. The way the players harmonize adds a subtle flourish to all of these songs. But then there’s also the sudden wall of guitars that take over the last third of album standout “These Three Things.” And the ghostly high pings that rain down on “The Whip and the World.” A banjo echoes over the ominous piano of “Black and Tan,” and a thick, throbbing bass muscles up the moody “Indian Isle.”
In short, these guys never run out of surprises. Their brand of pop is sun-drenched and hazy, and they may owe their sound to any number of country and pop bands who were hung with those adjectives long before Kingsbury Manx were. But the way they combine instruments, the way they refuse to simply settle into traditions, is what makes their music so compelling. And this album, their finest to date, shows how well these Carolina boys work together. They trade instruments on the record, take on different roles, and write arrangements and harmonies together. Twice on the record, singer Bill Taylor hands over lead vocal duties to Ryan Richardson and those songs, “If You’re on the Mend, I’m on the Move” and “Clean Break,” are simply excellent. They take a different angle on the band’s sound, taking the wurlitzers and echoed guitars down country roads building into pastoral landscapes behind Richardson’s lovelorn tales.
The Kingsbury Manx have a lot of weapons at their disposal when they approach their music, and they use them with a subtle wisdom rather than ever clubbing you over the head with overbuilt, overdone songs. Ascenseur Ouvert! is everything a great pop record should be, with plenty of the band’s own distinct charms to make it stand out on its own. This is an album that succeeds, wholly and beautifully, on its own terms.