NO DUSTBOWL DITTIES: Kingsley Flood are fighting the good fight to keep Americana honest.
I tend to suspect a solid percentage of what appear to be roots-movement bands are, in fact, punk bands who realized they get taken more seriously when they play acoustic guitars and pretend they've always been huge Johnny Cash fans.
"I never grew up wearing cowboy hats, and I'm not going to wear one now," says Kingsley Flood founder and songsmith Naseem Khuri via telephone from Washington, DC. "We're all from the Northeast. We don't try to be something we're not. One thing we say is, we're trying to challenge traditional notions of Americana music. Hopefully, we're not making music that's been made a million times."
Kingsley — conquerors of the Phoenix's "Best Local Roots Act" in this year's Best Music Poll — contradict my cynicism about urban-dwelling twangy balladry, albeit more or less by accident. With the exception of their own band and a handful of others, they're not alt-country fans.
"I don't even like the phrase 'alt-country,' " says Khuri. "A lot of alt-country out there is just sort of boring. That's why I love the idea of just calling our music rock and roll with a fiddle. People start to realize it's not a novelty. Good music is good music, and it lasts."
In the case of Kingsley Flood, it's lasted and thrived despite Khuri's relocating to DC about a year ago while the five remaining members of the band remain in our neck of the woods. Khuri credits this to a rigorous rehearsal ethic. The plummeting standard cost of airfares also helps, as do similar musical tastes.
"I still don't listen to much roots rock," says bassist Nick Balkin, when I join him with three other area Kingsleys at Lord Hobo in Cambridge. "When Naseem and I started playing, his songs were just really good folk songs. Then it turned into something you could label Americana, because we kept saying things like, 'Oh, this would be cool with a fiddle,' or 'This part would be cool with a mandolin.' "
Of course, 90 percent of bands who say they didn't expect to end up lumped in with whatever genre either have no self-awareness or are lying. But this year's self-released Dust Windows indicates that Kingsley Flood know themselves quite well. Sometimes a straight-rock essence supplants their flickering traditionalist zeal. But then there's "Devil's Arms," which could inspire you to hop a train and guzzle moonshine. And "When I Grow Up" and "Just a Midnight Ride" fall into that select cadre of really cool indie songs I wonder whether my dad wouldn't enjoy.
Even on those tracks, Khuri never quite ceases to evoke an impish, Dustbowl-era troubadour spinning narratives where the Devil and Jesus exist as characters in the story, as opposed to anything allegorical. Which is weird, given that dude's got a grad degree from Harvard. But had he not pursued academe, he never would've started his fiddly rock band. Balkin, then known mainly as guitarist for space-age neo-Britpop lads Logan 5 and the Runners, first met Khuri through a Craigslist roommate arrangement while the latter attended school. After some fluctuation, the line-up has settled into Khuri, Balkin, lead-guitarist George Hall, mandolinist/fiddler Jenée Morgan, trumpeter Chris Barrett, and drummer Will Davies. They all seem to share a dislike of contemporary alt-country.