While Kingston City (Easy Star, 2015) had some flaws, songs like “Protect Me” and “Mystery Babylon” were supreme- enough to get me excited for further development from one of New York, NY’s finest contemporary reggae outfits. But A Kingston Story: Come From Far (Easy Star, 2017) doesn’t deliver. Brothers Tahir, Courtney Jr., and Stephen, along with their dad, Courtney Sr., on bass are so close to making something spectacular: their vocal harmonies, their use of space, their pop-conscious melodies, and oftentimes their hooks, are excellent, but CFF feels half-written.
Take “Stereotypes”, an excellent theme for a song. The bassline thunders, setting a meditative and heavy mood, but then, “Break down every gate/ Break down every barrier/ Righteous is the way/ People, won’t you follow us?” is repeated six times in a row (in a slow tempo) before a bridge kicks in, three-quarters through the song. That’s the whole thing. The melody, instrumentation, and delivery is simply not enough to carry this kind of repetition.
“Meditation” is similar, beginning, “Going straight to the brain/ Come and take me away… Life ain’t no game.” Lyrically, this is not only stereotypical, but also vapid. Following is a reprehensible rhyme: “Don’t want to wait in vain/ I need it in my vein,” (also feeling like more of a heroin reference than collie). The song kind of pulls itself together later, glued with slinky percussion, but after a semi-structured verse, a recording of a woman talking nonsense about breathing-in steals the last minute of the song. I keep thinking, “When’s the song going to begin?”
“Solid As A Rock” wants to flourish, but the flashy electric guitar and synth drums, along with hearing “solid as a rock” repeated over and over, is cliché. “Starlight” is also so very close to packing a punch: the intro is sexy, and the choral melody is tight, but lines like, “Every king needs a queen/ She’s my reason/ She’s the one to give me love in every season” brings it to a screeching halt.
The title track (also the first single) is amazing, however. The groove is precise, and the brothers seem unified, playing off one another with lines like, “So many seeds/ (water them and they will grow).” This feels like a continuation of Kingston City’s excellence, and is what makes New Kingston a force. The song is part spiritual call/part dance n’ grind shuffle. “Honorable and The Beast” is also good, feeling like old school Steel Pulse. Again, the boys are unified and intentional about their interplay. And “Agape”, for being something of a corny love song, flutters with lightness, and is passionate. It’s a very beautiful message, and the lyrics are some of the best, (with the exception of, “You’re my baby boo/ yes, this love is true”).
Yet with one track as a dub and another as an interlude, this album tries to stand on three essential New Kingston songs. I don’t really understand how this happened. Listen to the tightly sewn “Reggae Music Playing” and you’ll be able to hear the vast potential of this band. These songs feel like they just needed more time in the incubator, or another ear to listen to them an add some spice. I really love New Kingston. As people, they are humble and very kind. As live musicians, they steal the hearts of the crowd. As songwriters, they are blossoming, but A Kingston Story: Come From Far leaves me wanting. I’m curious what other fans think.