The band's new full-length, "Battles," officially due Feb. 5, still offers the intimacy that drove their 'bout-perfect first album, "Dust Windows," but you no longer hear the crickets and seldom expect Levon Helm to come in on the chorus. Again, there's an abundance of big hooks and little grace notes that will lodge these songs in your head. But "Battles" continues down the rock road of last year's "Colder Still" EP, as frontman and songwriter Naseem Khuri leads his merry band of brothers and one sister further out onto their own not-especially-categorizable musical terrain. "Battles" might be just the thing to get them into the plain-'ol'-best-band category next year.
Not that they've turned their back on rootsy. From its title to its picked-guitar intro to its timeless-sounding chorus, "Waiting on the River to Rise" couldn't be any more heartland. But it quickly dawns on the listener that there's something a little strange and slanty about that piano line, and the lonely whistling is more Morricone than Mayberry. Then, with a change of just a couple of words, the last verse goes somewhere unexpected, a declaration of - well, what? Ambition? Revolution? - before there's this ominous solar flare of a noise (Mellotron) at the close that makes you think it's something even worse. Sui generis.
At the other end of the spectrum - and the very next track - is "Down," a slashing little poseur-takedown driven by a throbbing fuzz bass riff that would not have sounded out of place from bassist Nick Balkin's other outfit, electro-rockers Logan 5 and the Runners. It's one of the slightest songs on the album, but definitely the kind of thing to make clear KF's ambitions aren't confined by genre.
Subtler effects flavor many of the tracks on this ambitious album, which was produced at Great North Sound Society in Parsonsfield, Maine by Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Langhorne Slim). But it's not the electronics, it's the resulting broody atmosphere that matters on tracks like the opening "Don't Change My Mind" and the haunting "Habit."
With its little plucked riff and its instant-earworm "I know, I know" vocal hook, "The Fire Inside" will stick with you. Faux-jaunty "King's Men" has musical-hall piano and trumpet and a barking dog; it's "Penny Lane" to the Kinks-ish blare of "Sun's Gonna Let me Shine" and "Pick Your Battles." "Strongman" is a straight-ahead stomper that comes closest to the joyous gonzo of the band's live shows (although I could do without the "bad cold" vocal filter here and elsewhere).
As always, from song to song Khuri's lyrics jump from confessional directness to Dylanesque and oblique, and at best split the difference. What's he singing about? Somewhere in most of these songs is the struggle to stay true to the self and what's right, against the temptations of self-doubt and fear, fame and sex, surrender and anger. Sometimes he sounds like a budding rock success trying to embrace his temptations ("Sun Gonna Lemme Shine"), while at others he's a busted-out working man overwhelmed by failure or family or infidelity. Even the twisted ones think they're doing the right thing, or at least embrace the wrong with open eyes.
"Hard times for the quiet kind" indeed. If there's any justice, and at the risk of making Jersey wince, 2013 ought to be the Year of the Flood.