Wednesday, March 30, 2022

The Kenneth Brian Band - Keys To The Kingdom

Sometimes the most interesting things are the ones you’re not even sure you like.  Maybe 15 years ago someone sent me a download of the first album by White Denim, and as the bizarrely-titled opening track ‘Radio Milk How Can You Stand It’ clattered into action I found myself thinking “What the hell is this?  Punk-jazz?  Jazz-punk?  Some kind of wacko Devo tribute?”
Now, this offering by Kenneth Brian Band isn’t as flummoxing as that, not by a long way.  But Keys To The Kingdom is still a puzzler.  Some songs start out strong then drift.  Others do the opposite, meandering into motion before something generates traction.
Kenneth Brian tries to remember a chord shape
Pic by Tamarind Free Jones
Take ‘Keys To The Kingdom’ itself, for example.  The opening song is bracketed, front and back, by an appealing, fuzzily bright, FX-treated riff.  In between though, the vibe cools off abruptly for the verse, then works through some Lizzy-like blocked out chords propelling the pre-chorus, leading into a pretty prosaic refrain, and then a lively but nothing-special guitar solo.  See what I mean?  This is curate’s egg territory.
Or take the slowie ‘Crazy’ – and there are several slowies among the ten tracks.  Brian’s vocal actually seems to wander off key here and there on a melody that’s intriguing for a spell and then, when it shifts direction, not so much.  But at the same time Brian’s sparse guitar fills, like gently falling leaves, work very nicely.  And when they lift matters into a piercing but lyrical slide solo I’m tempted to make comparisons with the rock of Drive-By Truckers.
And so it goes, much of the time.  The sitar-like guitar intro of ‘War’ is interesting, and the prelude to a satisfyingly jangling, revolving guitar riff.  But then the vocal, about “war” on the personal relationship front, is pretty nondescript, even if the tempo picks up on the chorus and the drums add some extra oomph when the slide guitar solo breaks out. ‘She Is The Night’ is more uptempo, and with its drawled vocal at first sounds like ersatz Tom Petty.  But with the addition of some spooky swirls of keys by bassist Brandon Owens, it gradually develops more coherence and confidence, culminating in a passage of brooding bass over Chris Cano’s snapping drums, with some choppy guitar chords and more synth for extra seasoning.
The slowish ‘California’ also has a mild flavour of Tom Petty – Brian was raised in Petty’s hometown of Gainesville, and Mike Campbell assisted on the “pre-production” of some songs – but the shivering, effects-tinted guitar over a funereal beat is more interesting than the lyric, which attempts to attach a persona to California but doesn’t really convince.
However Brian’s guitar work often elevates proceedings, whether with the low-slung, twangy guitar figure and nagging, ringing guitar refrain (á la early Edge, perhaps) of ‘Falling Again’, or the on-point soloing that makes the measured, reflective slow blues of ‘Hard Heart’ one of the best things here.  The Americana-esque ‘Love’ also features tasteful sprinkles of guitar early on, and a brief but lyrical solo, but I can’t decide if its melody is simple and beguiling, or just plain simplistic.
‘Rimrock’ is a convincing closing track though, with a twirling guitar line for openers, steady bass and twitching drums creating some tension that piques the curiosity, and then a strong, edgy, razor-like solo, before its winds itself up into some big grinding chords and crashes of cymbal and then subsides to a halt.
“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is – do you, Mr Jones?” sang Bob Dylan.  I’m kinda with Mr Jones when it comes to this album.  Has Kenneth Brian channelled his influences into his own distinctive sound?  Or does he need someone to turn the dial and give him a clearer focus?  I’ve listened to Keys To The Kingdom several times now, and I’m still not sure.  But I’m still interested.
Keys To The Kingdom is out now on Southern Shift Records, and available here.

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