Saturday, July 24, 2010

Album Review: "Declaration of Dependence" by Kings of Convenience

Despite the temperate climate in their hometown of Bergen, Norway, the Kings of Convenience always appeared to be seeking more warmth. On the cover of their debut LP, Quiet is the New Loud, the duo of Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe are huddled together; on the cover of their second album, Riot on an Empty Street, they’ve retreated indoors. On their new full-length, Declaration of Dependence, Øye and Bøe seem to get their much desired change of scenery, having shucked their sweaters and headed for the beach. They’re no longer standing guard and staring back at you—which Øye does on the cover of first album and Bøe on the second—as if to say that you’re peering into some intimate space where you’re not totally welcomed. And the brunettes, the only invited guests on the first two album covers, are gone. On Declaration, the Norwegian folk singers are finally left to themselves and they appear totally at ease. The climate’s just right.

It turns out that the album cover reflects the songs inside. On Declaration, all Øye and Bøe have left are each other, and much of the album’s success rides on the feeling that this is how it was always supposed to be. So Øye and Bøe take their already bare bones acoustic sound and strip it down further. Gone are the drums that provided extra thrust to the loveable “Toxic Girl” on the band’s first LP. While Declaration features a few sprinklings of upright bass and viola, missing are the string solos that made old tracks like “I Don’t Know What I Can You From” a standout. Absent are the dance beats that made “I’d Rather Dance With You” a refreshing change of pace on Riot (and made Øye in particular a fan favorite). Leslie Feist, who stole the show on more than one occasion on Riot, has left the building. Declaration has an air of sincerity because it’s the Kings of Convenience album that most closely resembles the duo’s popular live shows: just two friends and their acoustic guitars.

Like their first two albums, Declaration begins with Øye and Bøe singing in their familiar lock-step, a melody closely shadowed by a harmony. “24/25” offers not only the kind of wistful passages that fans have grown accustomed to, but a reminder that the duo has always appeared inextricably linked, like a single voice with subtle inflections. (In the liner notes, the band aptly acknowledges that “it can be difficult to separate the two voices.”) But the best moments on the album are when they divide the lead vocal responsibilities, with the other half carrying a strong supporting role. On “Mrs. Cold,” Øye wonders aloud about a love that might have been, while Bøe fills the space between verses with the duo’s most affecting guitar melodies to date. They trade places on the next track, “Me in You.” Above a steady bassline, Bøe, through whispers, traces the faultlines in a relationship, while Øye bypasses the duo’s typical harmonies and sings in falsetto in the final refrain.

Øye and Bøe probably won’t ever shake the comparisons to Simon and Garfunkel. But their music has new resonance when held up to another musical influence, someone who’s mostly unacknowledged but has been essential to the duo’s artistic development. At their 2005 concert at the World Café Live in Philadelphia, a fan asked Øye and Bøe to name their favorite artist. Their response came immediately: Mark Kozelek’s first band, Red House Painters. Similarities in playing style aren’t hard to find. The propulsive finger-picking on Declaration’s “Second to Numb” has unmistakable shades of Kozelek’s cover of AC/DC’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer.” The meditative shuffle of “Riot on an Empty Street” seems to draw its inspiration from Kozelek’s Little Drummer Boy. The Kings of Convenience are artists steady in temperament with a reputation for writing bittersweet tunes. They’re not mimicking Kozelek in that respect. On Declaration, the duo sounds proud of that fact that they’ve always shared Kozelek’s basic make-up.

As songwriters, Øye and Bøe continue to try to make every word count, often packing loaded words into tight spaces, like on “Freedom and its Owner” (“But freedom, freedom never greater than its owner / Freedom is the mastery of the known”). You can’t help but wonder sometimes if the band is test-driving phrases for future album titles. (For the duo, it’s always been the more audacious the title, the better. In particular, “Power of Not Knowing,” the album’s eighth track, sounds like a Kings of Convenience album title in-waiting.) Fortunately, more often than not these lyrics come across as emotional tributes rather than impersonal statements of fact, even when the duo flirts with political ideas. A decade into their career, Øye and Bøe’s honest declaration of self comes through loud and clear, no matter how quiet they are. Øye and Bøe no longer need those brunettes who appear on the cover of their first two albums. On their third and best LP, these two just have each other, and we’re all the better for it.

[4 out of 5 stars]


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