Kings of Convenience

Riot on an Empty Street

by Stefan Braidwood

9 August 2004

 

Eirik Boe and Erlend Oye met as children in the furiously testosterone-drenched context of an inter-schools geography contest. As was perhaps to be expected given the quietly cerebral (and potentially soul-eroding) nature of this beginning, they initally formed a covers band dedicated to those masters of bubblegum pop thrills, Joy Division, and settled on the divine name of Skog—perhaps Norwegian slang for heroin, you would think, or maybe a grunting escapee from The Lord of the Rings; that’d be rock ‘n’ roll. No, it means tree. Yes, chock full of contradictions are the Kings of Convenience.

Well, not really; and in fact a little more contrast or even controversy in their music would probably be a good thing, as we shall see later. Chances are that you’ve heard Quiet Is the New Loud by now; but when it came out in 2001 their Ken Nelson-produced debut (he of Coldplay and Badly Drawn Boy fame) caused quite a stir with its defiant return to the simple, atmospheric bones of acoustic guitar songwriting; like a lighter (and less English) take on John Martyn and Nick Drake dueting over rippling, circular ambience. British critics, among them the rather excitable review writer of the Oxford Student, instantly heralded the coming of a New Acoustic Movement. Meanwhilst, our two Norwegians were obliviously touring England’s churches, sports halls, theatres and the cinema down the road from where I was living at the time. Unfortunately I missed what was by all accounts a gorgeously affecting performance; but then the reviewer himself missed bespectacled casanova Erlend, who’d absconded through the back door with one of many smitten female fans.

cover art

Kings of Convenience

Riot on an Empty Street

(Source)
US: 27 Jul 2004
UK: 21 Jun 2004

There followed the tremendous remixes/covers/b-sides compilation, Versus, that drafted in such luminaries as Röyksopp, Four Tet and Ladytron, and which to my mind surpassed the debut by quite some way. Then the duo took a bit of a break whilst Erlend pursued his DJ ambitions travelling around Europe, putting out a solo album, Unrest (with the aid of Prefuse 73, Schneider TM and others), as well as a Scandinavian, ‘80s-obsessed singjay contribution to the DJ-Kicks that was… different. Oh, and working on another solo side-project, The Whitest Boy Alive (no comment). Meanwhilst, the more conventionally attractive Eirik had been busy pursuing his psychology degree, treating patients, getting into town planning, swimming and writing the occasional song in his spare time. Obviously two very different people, linked by precocious multi-instrumentalist talent, a yen for liltingly sung wistfulness and a total inability to sit still.

Which might go some way to explaining why, reunited once more, they’re perfectly happy to relax back into the dreamy essence, or “sheer simplicity”, of yore. Indeed, two of the present songs were written in 1998, which obviously spares them the inconvenience of looking for anyone else’s old songs to cover. To be fair, their sound has gained welcome tinges of bossa nova, is as well-burnished as ever, and is in fact a little fuller thanks to the addition of some lovely bango, trumpet, trombone and cello. They’ve also retained their ability to write simple relationship-based lyrics that remain just the right side of the quirky/whimsical, sweet/sickly divides.

It’s just that 44-odd minutes of affecting, tasteful acoustic minstrelry is rather, well, inertia-inducing. “Surprise Ice” and “Gold in the Air of Summer” are, lyrically, as good and differently insightful as their titles suggest, yet on casual listening they, along with quite a few of the songs here, tend to drift into each other. Standout “I’d Rather Dance With You” shows without a doubt that they can retain all their charm whilst attempting a bit of grin-inducing boogie, which inevitably leaves one wishing for a couple more uptempo gems to contrast with the overly horizontal rainy day vibe of the remainder. Oh, and Broken Social Scene songstress Feist crops up on two numbers, but her gorgeously full, pure vocal tone (with hints of Björk) doesn’t mix particularly well with our odd couple’s tremulous emoting, and by herself, as on the end of closer “The Build-Up” she sounds a little lost. Enthusiasts should definitely pick up her recent solo debut, Let It Die, to hear her shine properly.

All in all, an assured and slightly more sprightly step up from their debut, if not exactly a (dance) riot. A second, complimentary remix album would be a potential classic; they can call it Skog Versus the World. He’ll win, obviously. And then take up knitting.

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