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The Kingsbury Manx - Aztec Discipline

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Artist: The Kingsbury Manx

Album: Aztec Discipline

Label: Overcoat

Review date: Jan. 29, 2004

Apart from being the only band today with a guy named Clarque among its members, The Kingsbury Manx have distinguished themselves largely through a sure-handed approach to melodic indie-pop, defining themselves more through the skill of their performance rather than the sheer originality of their ideas. Emerging in 2000 from Chapel Hill, seemingly fully-formed, the band quickly established themselves among similarly-minded indie cognoscenti, touring with the likes of Elliott Smith, Stereolab, and Calexico as their records became the soundtrack for lonely car trips everywhere.

The pop provided by the Kingsbury Manx is shuffling, a bit withdrawn, and suffused with a warm, late-autumn glow of nostalgia and regret. It’s the music you hear in your head when you think back to a long-lost girlfriend, before you remember you’re about to lose the one you’ve got now. Previous Manx records could really tug your heartstrings by focusing on young love, dosing their tales of romance with enough melancholy to add an urgent, despairing tone to the whole thing. Now, befitting their "grown up" status a mere three years after their first record, the band has settled on the aftermath of a break-up as this album’s source material.

In many ways, Aztec Discipline ably continues the path forged by the Manx on their self-titled debut, but some of the seams are beginning to show. The music is as languid and gorgeous as ever, but the songs crucially lack a strong lyrical position or direction, and as a result, the music can seem to be drifting off in a cloud of arpeggiated guitar figures and gentle keyboards. Bands like Portastatic and the Mendoza Line have learned that all the warm keyboards in the world won’t save a song without strong lyrics; the Manx seem to have forgotten this. The songs on both Aztec Discipline and the Afternoon Owls EP display a glaring dearth of ideas, relying instead on a pensive, brooding atmosphere. With nothing to lock into, it’s all too easy to let the songs blend together, which is much less than these obviously well-crafted recordings aspire to.

The production, by North Carolina stalwart Jerry Kee, is lush: dense washes of sound flow through every song, with the guitars plucking and weaving throughout. A lot of thought and work has gone into this music, and it’s a shame that such a talented band has squandered the opportunity to produce something truly distinctive. Not to make the Manx whipping boys for everything that is wrong with indie rock today, but the band does seem emblematic of the problems facing certain bands right now. While many groups are attempting "ambitious" works, they seem to confuse, as many have, that complicated arrangements make "great" music. What this kind of music often reveals, alas, is that many indie rock bands simply don’t have that much to say. They are minor talents and the pleasures of their bands are similarly pitched.

Most indie rock minor-leaguers cite the Beach Boys, the Velvets, the Kinks, whoever, as influences, and time and time again, they seem to forget that these bands forged their sounds out of a restless sense of experimentation, by pushing themselves to the limit artistically, not by simply aping their forebears. Kingsbury Manx have shown themselves to be a capable, very good band in the past, and while this album could never be called “bad,” it is simply too unremarkable to leave a trace on the listener. Now that they’ve got their sound together, perhaps they can focus on some new ideas.

By Jason Dungan

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