Friday, April 3, 2009

Kings of Convenience. Riot On An Empty Street (Astralwerks, 2004)

“What is there to know?/ This is what it is/ You and me alone/ sheer simplicity.”

If you would have told me fifteen years ago that when I was 30 I would really dig a folk-pop duo from Norway, I might have kicked you in the shins with my combat boots. Fortunately now I’m older, hopefully wiser, and able to appreciate (some of) the Norwegians' music (if not their cuisine). Case in point: Bergen's Kings of Convenience.

Fronted by Erlend Oye (also solo recording artist and DJ extraordinaire) and his childhood pal Eirik Glambek Boye, Kings of Convenience first minced their way onto the festival scene in 1999 (after a short-lived turn during high school as Skog, Norwegian for "forest"). Their talent, perhaps combined with the revamp/re-moniker to the internationally friendly (certainly at least America/UK friendly) Kings of Convenience, landed them their first record deal.

2001 saw the release of Quiet Is The New Loud, a gorgeously understated record, lushly melodic and well worth checking out. Following that gem (and a delicious record of Quiet remixes, 2001's Versus), Riot on an Empty Street was released in 2004 to, well, maybe not fanfare, but it was certainly well-received and holds up, in this reviewer’s opinion, as one of the best records of that year.

For those of you who haven’t already heard Kings of Convenience, I can tell you that you already know Erlend Oye’s infectious voice (if you own a TV). He was the featured singer (with band Royksopp) in the hippest of the Geico caveman commercials. You know the one: airport, tennis racket, vintage carry-all, moving sidewalk, all very Wes Anderson. In fact, Oye sports a bit of a Wes Anderson-y look himself, with his ginormous Norwegian government-issue frames and unruly curls. Sigh. But I digress…

Riot on an Empty Street is everything that listeners loved about Quiet Is The New Loud, only more and better. From the first delicate opening chords of "Homesick," you'll be hooked. Channeling Simon & Garfunkel, their harmonies are indicative of their close friendship, reading and playing off each other like identical twins. "Misread" follows, with a mellow bossa nova beat and Astrud Gilberto feel, if a touch more melancholy, less sunshine and sand. "Cayman Islands" is a winsome song about vacationing and sometimes feeling more at home in strange places than in your own bed.

"Stay Out of Trouble" is a standout, the strings and chords gliding and practically leaping over the grim lyrics of a broken relationship: “So baby, what we’ve got has lately not been enough.” Then, on "Know-How," Oye and Boye bring in their secret weapon – Canadian indie chanteuse Feist. And this is 2004 Feist -- not the current overexposed, sorta insufferable diva Feist -- making her vocal contributions not only listenable but brilliant and indispensable.

"Sorry or Please" is a playful look at the early, awkward stage of romantic relationships (not as cheesy as it sounds). "Love is No Big Truth," "I’d Rather Dance With You," and "Live Long" bring the record’s blood pressure back up with dance-y beats a la a back-to-ours at Ibiza.

The party winds down for the last few tracks. "Surprise Ice" seems to be all about maintaining some sense of hope for the future in the darkness of Norwegian winter. "Gold In the Air of Summer" may just kill you with its sweet remembrance of an intoxicating trip to a summer house on the seashore: “Without giving anything away, you’ll find ships inside of bottles/ And the garden’s overgrown, the house is white but the paint is coming off…you’ll shine like gold in the air of summer.” "The Build-Up" is the last song on the record (and the second coming of Feist) and it sends you gently off into the sunset.

Kings of Convenience promise that they're working on a third LP, though they've been promising that since 2004. Erlend is busy with lots of side projects (Unrest is a great record, as is his DJ Kicks contribution), Eirik is busy with his own side-project Kommode, a band he formed with his old Skog-mates. A new Kings of Convenience record would be a welcome addition to this world, but if Riot On An Empty Street is the last we hear from the duo together, then at least they overshot the high note and went out on a transcendent one. -- Anneke Chy