August 2, 2013

Kings of Convenience - Declaration of Dependence

Kings of Convenience - Declaration of Dependence
The Norwegian lads were in a pickle. In waiting five years after their previous release to present us with a new record, only two reactions were possible:  we’d expect it to be twice as good as Riot on an Empty Street and be disappointed; or, we’d love it, but be annoyed they held back for so long.  In the end, the initial response is probably a blend of the two, with a slight reduction in emotional heft as they've aged replaced with a more subtle, natural songcraft almost certain to be underestimated.

And the key factor for many in (potentially) undervaluing Declaration of Dependence, the latest offering from the Kings of Convenience (often likened to a progressive Simon & Garfunkel for their reliance on two blended voices) is the spare approach – no drums (though hand-thwacks on the guitar body occasionally serve as percussion), no Feist vocals and less instrumentation overall.  Unlike Riot, there’s no toe-tapping hit like “I’d Rather Dance With You.”  And the songs absolutely breeze by on first listen.

But don’t be fooled, as Declaration is spare in the same sense a Paul Klee painting might be -– only from a great distance.  Binoculars reveal the acoustic guitars augmented handsomely by violin, cello, tinkling keyboard fills and an upright bass, which takes over much of the rhythmic heavy lifting.

“Spare” could, at least for some, more properly be replaced with “subtle,” as the greater open space allows Declaration to enjoy one of the richest soundscapes ever on an acoustic release. While Riot was indeed splendidly recorded, this one ups the ante a bit, with round, honey-toned vocals, bathed in a naturally sounding reverb both immediate and deep, never cavernous, and a guitar tone spacious enough to fill the room with single plucked notes, while still affording the detail of fret squeaks and the odd fingernail gaffe.

But I’d prefer to use “focused,” as those yearning for a kitchen sink approach may overlook the laser-guided successes herein.  Even Declaration’s detractors would readily admit the greater continuity of tone than prior efforts -- though a deceptively complex one that’s simultaneously open (in an outdoorsy sense) and claustrophobically dreamy.

“Maturity” is another concept likely to be bandied about, with a slight political tilt to some of the lyrics -- though, interestingly, the associated tunes are marginally less successful musically – with the exception of “Rule my World,” with its infectious, circling, single-note guitar riff, though in truth the words seem a bit trite (no “Masters of War” here).

One also gets the distinct impression that in knowing one another since their schoolboy days in Bergen, Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambæk Bøe have become so familiar artistically (despite differing offstage musical interests) that productive interplay comes naturally, without intense effort.

And therein will lay the problem for many – effortlessness.  And by this I don’t mean hard work (the craftsmanship should quell any doubts) but whether they consciously tried to challenge one another.  (The most damning evidence is contained in the lyrics, which are often rather pedestrian).  In the end I’ll leave these discussions -- on why artists can’t just make the record we hope for – to others, believing them to be futile exercises, akin to lamenting a student’s chosen profession.

Instead, I’d prefer to note the highlights, which are rather numerous:

 “Riot on An Empty Street” which ironically begins with "Why, why so quiet?” sounds like it could have been a leftover, not from the like-named release, but instead their debut, Quiet is the New Loud, with a thick atmosphere of curious melancholy.

“Boat Behind,” the album’s “hit” tune, finds the Kings at their most frivolous and infectious, with its “oh oh oh oh oh” chorus and viola obbligato that darts to and fro like a dragonfly.

 “Mrs. Cold,” a plucky, zippy track, sounds like the components of Riot’s “Misread” diced into little squares then reassembled into a lighter confection.

“Renegade,” a fascinating minor key exercise with deliberate, evenly spaced melodic backing, is perhaps too good musically for the rather facile prose it backs.

More interesting is “Power of Not Knowing,” which unfolds as an ethereal meld of Simon & Garfunkel’s harmonies and Nick Drake’s figurations (and strategic dissonances) embellished smartly with harp-like spread chords held high up, near the bridge.

“Freedom and Its Owner” without a doubt boasts the best lead and backing vocals on the disc and manages a richness that belies the stripped down instrumentation.

We even get the obligatory “glacier meets bossanova” for “Me in You,” which again recalls Riot’s “Misread” in its internal propulsion.

The leadoff track “24-25” is the most interesting lyrically, and not inappropriately states its declaration of (in)dependence from the get-go:

She'll be gone soon
you can have me for yourself
But do give, just give me today
or you will just scare me away
what we build is bigger
than the sum of two
then later acknowledges
but somewhere I lost count on my own
and somehow I must find it alone

24 and blooming like the fields of Maine
25 and yearning for a ticket out
dreams burn but in ashes are gold

For me the supreme highlight is “Second to Numb,” with its interweaving finger-picking that recalls “Cayman Islands” and is similarly (and quite wonderfully) pensive.  The manner in which their voices blend in harmony, dipping occasionally into lower registers, is a marvel.

I suppose the key piece of evidence in any verdict for the Kings of Convenience is the amount of filler present, admittedly a subjective judgment, which has remained steady at one track out of roughly a dozen for all three of their standard releases, each rather short at only 45 minutes, like the long platters of old.

So, what are we left with?  In the end, I simply can’t think of a reason not to acquire this disc.  Despite the lack of a stylistic breakthrough, Declaration exudes the same resigned wistfulness as their last two CDs with ever-so-slightly lower emotional highs but a greater sharpness in spirit.  Apparently, Quiet is the old Loud.

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