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Melancholy against brutality
on January 7, 2003
Kings of Convenience are two Norwegians named Erlend and Eirik, and "Quiet is the New Loud" is their first album. It is a group of recordings oddly reminiscent of any number of precedents - Simon & Garfunkel are the obvious reference, but so are Belle & Sebastien and Nick Drake - without ever actually sounding like anything else at all. Indeed, one of the strange effects of this nearly ephemeral folk-pop is its evasiveness. Instrumentation, for example, gets absorbed into the total effect; every time I hear "Toxic Girl" I'm surprised to discover it has drums. I remember it being just singing and guitar. In fact, each track has drums, electric guitar, sometimes on up to cellos and orchestration. The effects are hardly obvious.
This goes for the group itself: two Norwegians who sound like Englishmen, accompanying themselves on multi-tracked recordings done largely in Liverpool. Given its recording location, the whole album seems almost a deliberate reversal of The Beatles's "The Ballad of John and Yoko," where Lennon and McCartney produced the whole band's sound by themselves. The album cover - a picture of Erlend and Eirik with a female friend (perhaps Daisy Simons who co-wrote one of the tracks) next to some fjord-side boathouse - even looks like a Beatles-era artifact reprised. (Norwegian Wood, anyone?). The Kings of Convenience seem intent on using the whole panoply of studio effects and instrumentation towards the end of making as quiet an album as possible. The title is not arbitrary, nor even merely descriptive; it is a manifesto. The sentiment isn't new of course; it's fundamental to mid-twentieth century avant-garde aesthetics. "Less is more" was Mises Van der Rohe's motto. But the real success of the Kings' sound is that it doesn't actually come across as minimalist. The negations are played out and undercut from within rather than through after-the-fact reductions.
I have said nothing so far about the songs or the lyrics. No doubt, the argument that the album functions as a kind of auto-negation of assertion has to apply especially to the singing. More often it does just trail off behind the repetition of a guitar melody. Harmony vocals play in and out almost as cross-interference, as does instrumentation. Phil Spector may haunt this production, though I can't be sure it's intentional. All the same, the album comes with a lyric sheet, and the thematic is consistent: obsession with lost relationships, heartbreaks, and memories. Dusty Springfield once said she never paid any attention to the words in her songs. I'm not sure the words matter at all in these songs. Though I can only imagine that Erlend and Eirik's command of the English language is fluent, there is something about the construction of these songs, and their delivery, which suggests a kind of automatic delivery which seeks to produce a somatic effect rather than a semantic uptake. The lyric sheet functions almost as a kind of confirmation that our understanding of the overall mood is the correct one. The sense of locution seems to be that the best way to get someone's attention is to speak very quietly.
I don't think I'd much care to listen to this formula repeated ad nauseum, but as a knowing intervention in the contemporary pop scene, I'm ready to go the extra mile to defend its end-of-the-summer melancholy against the brutalism and nihilism of what passes for youth culture today. Or rather, the idea that Kings of Convenience are the latest manifestation of post-punk European rock'n'roll works well enough for me, but I imagine in the age of Limp Bizkit the kids won't quite be clamoring to buy "Quiet is the New Loud." That is their loss.