On the follow up to its overlooked 2009 album, I Was a King decide to put off ruling in favor of whipping up competent but lazy ear candy.
Back home, there's a friend of the family whose response to someone's good fortune is a resigned "must be nice". The woman -- let's call her Debbie -- means well like most old friends, though we still joke about her defeatist tendencies. Admittedly, as John Lennon put it in "A Hard Day's Night", some people have it dead easy.
If you or someone you know exhibits these tendencies, take this writer's advice to avoid I Was a King, a band that makes harnessing the gift of songwriting look so enviously simple you may just lock your guitar away in storage with your SACD player. Third album Old Friends follows I Was a King's criminally overlooked self-titled album, which sported hazy garage pop ready to soundtrack a sunny July hangover. The rest of the indie world may have headed to the beach that summer for weeeed and bedroom-bred nostalgia-tripping, but I Was a King found more comfort inside with a dusty record collection.
Comfort is a key word: the music on Old Friends is so gooey and enveloping that it may take a few tracks to notice the actual lyrics accompanying the fuzz. I Was a King may have wanted it that way, as words are tricky to make out here, disregarding token quiet moments like "Snow Song". The Norwegian outfit might have free-jazz drummer Kevin Shea on the skins, but things don't get too zonky (it's only with the baroque noise-rock excursion "Unreal" that the album falters abruptly). Flow is the name of the game, and the piecemeal recording process -- laying down vocals, rhythm section, and piano in separate rooms -- does nothing to disrupt the cohesion. Songs segue effortlessly in and out like relatives at an open house.
I Was a King's Siamese Dream-on-mescaline pace continues here -- if you're looking for hyperactivity to jumpstart your New Year, look elsewhere. I Was a King remain modest: the previous album buried its best song, "Norman Bleik", in the back with the crushed beer cans. They don't make the same mistake here. Kicking off with the honeyed jangle of "The Wylde Boys" and downshifting with a four-chord British Invasion-via-Robert Pollard mantra on "Echoes", Old Friends gets down to business immediately.
While the sequencing comes off as ambitious, Old Friends generally has an unfettered breeziness about it, like most albums recorded at a fast pace (the material was tracked in less than a week). It's less direct an album than its predecessor, and the surprises are fewer. Still, the band's arsenal is more than the reliable guns of guitar and drums -- bumpkin banjo pickin' on "Learning to Fly" sets up the minute-plus intro, with frontman Frode Stromstad in no rush to drizzle his androgynous syrup on the microphone. Stromstad's feminine pipes often recall Girlysound-era Liz Phair, which make the druggy atmosphere more of a pleasure.
But Old Friends' greatest strength -- being good at what it does, without the sweat -- is also its greatest weakness. Taking 18 months between albums of dreamy pop (not dreampop) doesn't imply a lack of ambition, but there also won't be a designated place for I Was a King in your "feelgood indie rock" playlist, especially when this album magnifies the sleepy, repetitive qualities of the band's last effort. Old Friends gets a bit hazy by "Nightwalking", and that’s only the fourth song. It's a perfectly timed release, its ethos reflecting the hibernating instincts this season brings out in people. On "Snow Song", Stromstad gets snug to make a mental to-do list. "I warm my hands by the fireplace / And plan another card that won't be written", he sings. Like that letter never sent, and appropriate for a winter where comfort can overpower productivity, these songs have a spark but never fully catch fire.
Don't mistake the relaxed vibe for hesitation: these kings are ready to rule. When they get around to concocting some more focused melodies, they'll have it made, and we'll feel like simpletons saying "boy, it must be nice."