(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #81 – released July 27, 2004)
Track listing: Homesick / Misread / Cayman Islands / Stay Out Of Trouble / Know-How / Sorry Or Please / Love Is No Big Truth / I’d Rather Dance With You / Live Long / Surprise Ice / Gold In The Air Of Summer / The Build-Up
Read enough criticism and you’ll inevitably come across the phrase, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” (or some variation thereof.) It has been credited to everyone from Elvis Costello to Frank Zappa, though multiple threads point towards actor-comedian Martin Mull, of all people, as its originator. Regardless, this simile uncovers a truth about music most critics would rather ignore or better yet, transcend: sometimes, it’s a challenge to fully articulate why we like (or hate) a particular piece of music. Obviously, it’s not impossible—at this writing, I’ve spent four years of this blog going on and on about eighty-plus albums. Still, I fear that what I want to express about my love for all this music might occasionally get lost in translation: how can mere words recreate exactly what I felt the first time I heard side two of Abbey Road or the moment when Since I Left You clicked as a whole for me?
I’m reminded of this phrase whenever I try to explain why the music of Kings of Convenience hits me where I live. A Norwegian duo made up of former classmates Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe, they’ve put out three albums of hushed acoustic folk-pop full of close-knit harmonies (somewhat accented but always sung in English) and delicate, nylon-stringed guitar work. Simon and Garfunkel are their most obvious antecedents—their best songs exude the same intimacy of something like “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”—but they also neatly slot in with such liked-minded contemporaries as Elliot Smith or early Belle and Sebastian. Released in the same year as The Strokes’ Is This It and The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells, their debut’s title, Quiet Is The New Loud (2001) read like both an introduction and a provocation: here were two guys playing indie music not especially in sync with the garage rock revival times, which fit in well with their just plain unfashionable appearances on the cover.
What is it about KOC’s terminally untrendy, relatively simple folk-pop that I so strongly respond to? Øye and Bøe are far from the only duo to ever forge a career together out of songwriting, harmonies and acoustic guitars; arguably, they’ve done nothing as innovative as what The Everly Brothers (or, if you wish to be less charitable, Chad and Jeremy) accomplished decades before. And yet, when “Homesick” opens their second album with its clarion melody and rare, crystalline electric guitar lead, whatever irritations or distractions I’m feeling instantaneously dissolve. It’s calming but also instilled with wonderment approaching awe in the presence of seemingly endless beauty.
All of KOC’s limited oeuvre is worth hearing, but Riot On An Empty Street is the one to get because it builds upon what they established with Quiet Is The New Loud, honing their songwriting craft to a very fine point. As pretty as this music initially appears, it has considerable substance if you look beyond the placid surfaces—not that KOC is in any way dark or depressive, but once you consider the album title’s irony and apparent contradiction, it’s apparent how there’s so much more at play here than unassuming (if not silly) love songs. “Homesick” itself features a narrator whom describes home not by family or friends he’s left behind, but as fleeting memories made flesh by music: “I can’t stop listening to the sound / of two soft voices blended in perfection,” (hmm, whom does that remind you of?) they sing, “From the reels of this record that I’ve found.”
That’s not to say KOC aren’t all-out romantics, but they approach themes of love and infatuation with a pragmatism that bespeaks their Scandinavian background, not to mention the resignation of residing in a place with short-to-nonexistent winter days. “Love Is No Big Truth”, they conclude via one song’s title, while at least allowing for the possibility that “Love comes like surprise ice at dawn,” in another. On “I’d Rather Dance With You”, they lay out the law with ample charm, proposing to sidestep all small talk: “I haven’t read a single book all year / and the only film I saw, I didn’t like it at all,” they confess, so why waste time yelling over the din of the dancefloor and instead use the space as nature intended?
“I’d Rather Dance With You” is rather danceable itself in an indie-disco way, featuring a propulsive beat, banging piano and a lead viola riff. In the album’s midsection, it arrives after two songs that also manage a brighter, fuller, leaning-towards-contemporary sound without feeling at all out of place. On the aforementioned “Love Is No Big Truth”, Øye and Bøe somehow manage to resemble a rootsy New Order, entirely swapping that band’s synths and drum machines for guitars, pianos and live drums rhythmically manipulated to have a similar effect. Likewise, with its chorus eloquently turning on the guys’ harmonies, “Sorry Or Please” crisply shuffles along as if it were trip-hop played on real instruments, accented by strings, a trumpet solo and even a banjo.
Also widening the band’s scope are two guest appearances from Canadian singer-songwriter Leslie Feist (more commonly known by just her surname), shortly before her own breakthrough album Let It Die (and three years prior to her scoring a surprise top ten hit.) On both “Know-How” and “The Build-Up” (which she co-wrote with the boys), she’s deployed as a secret weapon, nonexistent until each song’s second half when her bell-like vocal suddenly takes over. She’s especially effective on the latter track, a pensive dirge that begins with Øye emitting plaintive phrases one by one. Then, the melody changes, perking up ever so slightly as Feist warbles her verses. Still, her album-closing lyrics, where she sings of a sound, “Written on your ticket / to remind you where to stop / and when to get off,” just seem to mournfully hang there, leaving a haunting afterimage.
There are hidden complexities throughout Riot On An Empty Street that can easily catch one off-guard. “Cayman Islands”, with its tranquil, wistful air, sounds like it should be a gentle account of time spent in a tropical paradise, but it’s more a metaphor for pondering the unexpected, labyrinthine path to love and closeness (“How someone could have chosen / to go the length I’ve gone.”) “Misread” wraps its scrutiny of intent and cross-wired communication up in such an alluring bossa-nova package you can get away with playing it at brunch, even with lyrics like, “The loneliest people / were the ones who always spoke the truth.” Meanwhile, “Stay Out of Trouble” affably re-writes Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” for a kinder generation (its narrator simply notes, “Try not to think about me too much,”) but doesn’t ignore a breakup’s pain (“I was alone and freezing / still trying hard to understand you.”)
However, for everything gestating within this music, I get the most pleasure from how it sounds and the tone it settles upon. As the album’s penultimate track, “Gold In The Air Of The Summer” also serves as the apotheosis of these qualities: the warmth of the guitars and piano and how the latter positively shimmers and sparkles in the brief instrumental break; the slow build up and back down again; the air of mystery withheld (opening line is, “Without giving anything away…”), followed by the promise of something found (“And now you and me are on our way,”); and most of all, the silence underscoring Øye and Bøe singing “You’ll shine like gold in the air of summer,” over and over before the piano and guitars resume and the song delicately comes to a close.
KOC returned five years later with a third album, Declaration of Dependence—initially, a minor let-down for simply being more of the same. Fortunately, its impact has deepened over repeated listens to the point where I now consider it nearly equal to its two predecessors. I’m not sure how much more they can eke out of this template, which may be why (at this writing) a fourth album has yet to appear (though they’re apparently working on it.) Still, if there’s one thing I can fully articulate about why I adore this duo, it’s the timelessness of their music—as fresh now as it was fifteen years ago. Much as I also love Simon and Garfunkel, could they even make that same claim fifteen years after their heyday?
Up next: A Reunion.
“I’d Rather Dance With You”:
“Gold In The Air Of Summer”: