"If You're on the Mend, I'm on the Move"—the fifth track on Ascenseur Ouvert!, the fifth album from Chapel Hill four-piece The Kingsbury Manx—pops so politely: Ryan Richardson's vocals are a casual, confidential croon, sung as in close quarters. Clarque Blomquist's beat is relaxed and easy, splashing a snare shuffle with waves of cymbal wash. Paul Finn's staggered Wurlitzer keyboard line trails Blomquist's bass loosely, lilting in the mix just below Bill Taylor's mid-range electric guitar lead. All together, the band offers a daydream of seemingly idle pleasantries.
Watch Richardson's words, though, and understand that the song reflects the closing tête-à-tête in a relationship that's simply stopped being inspiring: "I don't care if you don't care/ Let's call this off without despair/ Indifference is a worthless thing to share," he sings by way of introduction. Before long, he's admitted that he's fantasized about the breakup at night, and—in his dreams, without these worries—he slept so well. For such dainty music, Richardson's is a jarring, stern suggestion.
Abetted by a dozen or so perfect hooks and the pristine engineering and mixing of longtime local hand Jerry Kee, that sort of juxtaposition of soft musical centers and hard lyrical edges shapes Ascenseur Ouvert! into The Kingsbury Manx's biggest and richest accomplishment to date. Built by three personal, playful songwriters (Richardson, Taylor and Blomquist) and four dexterous multi-instrumentalists (Richardson strums and sings "If You're on the Mend," though he's often the drummer), Ascenseur works largely through impressions and layers. Puns are stacked: "A carpet, red, rolled out like we read about," sings Taylor on the excellent "Black and Tan." Instruments are piled: On "The Whip and the World," a piano and guitar carry the basic melody beneath gauzy harmonies. Two synthesizers play tag beneath. Mid-song, Blomquist's banjo twists through them all, darting over the keys and between the verses. Smart and restrained without being aloof or dispassionate, Ascenseur reveals itself slowly and on repeat.
That's appropriate since the band never speeds above a trot or never grows louder than a genteel jangle. In fact, "Well, Whatever" might be the album's most forthright rocker, but even its rhythm section comes set by a shaker. Synthetic strings follow Taylor, who—in his all-OK, nice-guy voice—asks for a little persistence while surviving a bruising carwreck, a pockets-out bankruptcy and a fruitless drought. "Indian Isle," the penultimate big rock crescendo about running and riding "free under the sun," fades in with an organ drone, preparing to launch the song to something bigger. But the persistently kind amble returns through drums and guitars, all mannered and clean. Taylor shares his tale of epiphany and liberation softly, a friend smiling over Sunday morning coffee.
Such limited ranges of volume and pace force the band to find surprising ways to make the record provocative, and they do just that on what's—in every way—a quiet tour de force: Finn adds an occasional droning sitar, and a local string duo plays understated themes in the background. Or on "These Three Things," the Manx builds to and retreats from tiny crescendos for every verse and chorus, adding extra keyboards, guitars and harmonies piecewise to heighten the song's ever-expanding, ever-threatening sense of eruption. When it finally arrives, one of the guitars has simply turned into a mild sheet of noise, and Taylor inserts a few extra words into one of the refrain's key lines. This careful cycle of tension and release works through subtlety and craft, not empty exclamation and effect.
That dim glow and relatively even surface might mean that, in a market of instant blog adoration, The Kingsbury Manx's best record yet—and one of the best pop records from this decade and state—will be offhandedly dismissed by those looking for something more instant or jarring. Maybe that's why this will be released by Odessa Records, band member Finn's label, instead of Yep Roc, who ostensibly didn't understand that the band was onto something special with 2006's The Fast Rise and Fall of the South.
No, the Manx is cool, surreptitiously catchy, a band that's so unflinchingly addictive on its own recalcitrant terms it seems subversive. Sure, the band's slight bounce waltzes to the threshold of hammy at times—the ebullient synthesizer lead of "Over the Oeuvre," for instance, or the quietly steady lift of keyboards, harmonies and hand drums that pulls "Minos Maze" skyward. But spin it again, and hear how moving instrumental parts fit, or how Taylor rhymes, "Away in a daydream that fills my head/ It's the living dead on a thoroughbred" during "Over the Ouevre." It's the sort of elliptical nonsense line that suggests, at once, everything and nothing, embedded in the sort of song that should have everyone—politely, quietly, steadily—singing along.
The Kingsbury Manx plays Cat's Cradle Friday, April 10, for the first Odessa Records party. Labelmates Americans in France and Impossible Arms open. The free show starts at 9:30 p.m.