The covers of the last two albums by Carrboro quartet The Kingsbury Manx teased the threshold between reality and representation. The Fast Rise and Fall of the South, the band's gentle 2005 charmer, depicted a spindly treetop at daybreak, orange horizon blurring into green blurring again into cerulean in the distance. Ascenseur Ouvert!, the brilliant 2009 follow-up, studied the geometry of a cathedral's corner, with triangles stacked on lines that emanated from arches, all pointing eternally upward. But lean in closely or skip to the album credits, and you'll notice that neither cover image is a photograph, no matter how lifelike they may appear. Rather, these are details of paintings by M. Scott Myers, only made to look like elegant stills. They're more involved than a shutter simply opening over film. Declaiming their own complexity, however, isn't the point.
That is the total effect of The Kingsbury Manx's music, especially on their sixth album, the new Bronze Age: They are a very sophisticated and subtle band hiding their involved machinations behind pop music meant to sound, once again, elegant and elementary. If you play Bronze Age in the background as you run errands or clean house, its suite of 11 songs should dissolve time, whisking away the tedium of the day with Mellotron glide and acoustic guitar jangle. "Glass Eye" is a lush beauty, sonorous strings wrapped like gauze around a sweet little hook. With walloping drums, blown-out bass and sci-fi keyboards, "In the Catacombs" targets an emboldened intersection of The Flaming Lips and Wilco. And "Concubine" feels like a vernal daydream, with a 12-string guitar chiming over a keyboard line, hovering in its own atmospheric haze. Bronze Age, then, seems readymade for drifting along. It's a postcard from a better place, where vacationers enjoy the seeming lack of action rather than react to the ceaseless torrent of it.
But if you tune in closely, it will be best to bring a notebook, as these songs and structures open to reveal volumes of ideas. The record's longest number, the six-minute "How Things Are Done," shifts capably between twinkling dream-pop and country languor before pushing the tempo to slingshot into a gorgeous astral jam that manages to both drone and charge. In only four minutes, "Handsprings" volleys between components more than a half-dozen times, moving restlessly from verse to pre-chorus to chorus and back again without ever seeming involved at all, much less busy. Only retroactively does one realize that the song's been building all along into a trumpet fanfare, which doubles as a crafty funnel toward a slow-burning, certainly beautiful coda. The Manx adds strings only once on Bronze Age, but they come brilliantly arranged on "Glass Eye," initially countering the melodic contour of singer and guitarist Bill Taylor before ultimately dovetailing with it.
Central to The Kingsbury Manx's enveloping nuance is Taylor's understated songwriting. These songs perfectly render the causes and complications of adult anxiety, from the dwindling number of days left to live to the specter of old decisions that have returned to haunt the present and future. But Taylor's near-whisper sometimes cloaks the choice of his words, although his smart writing seems to be evermore the guide of this band. For instance, during closer "Ashes to Lashes (Tailspins)," he insists on inserting polysyllabic words into a rhythm meant for monosyllabic tales. "The newspapers never said that love was a gift/ Just a fiery pit reminiscent of a seismic shift," he sings, the band around him instinctively swiveling to make space.
The key to The Kingsbury Manx's pristine surface and involved machinations, then, is its incredible thoroughness. As with its predecessors, Bronze Age's cover is a Myers landscape that again visits the Uncanny Valley. Like cover paintings that resemble photos, The Kingsbury Manx are good enough to make songs with layers and levels that push against the boundaries of prog feel like mere pop. It's a feint worth falling for again and again.
Label: Odessa Records