Beauty and pop music intersect about as rarely as parallel lines do. Though there can exist painfully poetic lyrics or almost scientifically crafted hooks, any given pop song tends to be corrupted by something so mundane as a single overdriven guitar or gratingly off-key vocalist. Of course, loud guitars and bad singers have become staples of rock — the genre wouldn’t exist without them. But beauty should have its place in pop music: Stephen Merritt proved that earlier this year with the Magnetic Fields’ i, and the Kings of Convenience are continuing the trend with Riot on an Empty Street.
Still pledging allegiance to their acoustic guitar/vocal duo formula, Riot boasts the same mellow complacency of the Kings’ debut album, 2001’s Quiet is the New Loud. Songs are sung softly and guitars are plucked gently; very little seems to have changed at the Kings of Convenience camp.
But the band’s formula gets stretched in more than a few spots on this album, adding a healthy touch that varies the sound just slightly from their earlier work. The tinkling piano that arose in a few places on Quiet is far more abundant on the new album; modestly placed strings are still present, and Erlend Oye’s trumpet returns as well. Added to the mix is a more present electric guitar sound — though it’s often used just like an acoustic — a banjo (courtesy of Eirik Glambek Boe), string bass and, most notably, the tidal voice of Leslie Feist that washes in on both the album’s centerpiece and its closer. She is the perfect vocal foil to Oye and Boe, and her appearance in “Know How” completely turns the album around from its mellow beginnings.
With the entrance of Feist over a few low piano chords, “Know How” throws out twist after twist. First is Oye’s re-entry in perfect harmony, followed by a moving line on the piano, then the album’s first sound of drums. This last element is important, as the three songs that follow are the only that feature any non-guitar percussion.
The drums fit the songs appropriately, but it differs greatly from that on Quiet is the New Loud: Formerly used as a textural element to back the guitars, the drums on this album are artificial-sounding and kitschy, stealing the foreground from the guitars and vocal harmonies. They add a certain generic nature to each song they appear on. “Love is No Big Truth” becomes a straightforward, beat-driven dance tune not unlike some that appeared on Quiet‘s remix album, Versus. “Sorry Or Please” is unfortunately typical-sounding, almost in the vein of Aimee Mann, and “I’d Rather Dance With You” smacks of Smiths-style ’80s pop.
The rest of the album is similarly assorted as far as genres go. “Live Long” is an up-tempo Latin groove complete with a token brass line; “Homesick” is mellow balladry that recalls Simon & Garfunkel in more than just instrumentation; and “Misread,” the first single, bears the same kind of reserved tension fleshed out through subtle jazz chords that the Kings perfected on their first album. The drum machine tunes and club-set fairy tale lyrics of “I’d Rather Dance With You” can probably be attributed to Oye’s recent penchant for dance music and his blossoming career as a “singing deejay,” but his beat addiction is fortunately restrained on this album.
The genre-jumping can be jarring on first listen, but it lends the album a healthy variety by cushioning the still overwhelming amount of quiet, acoustic numbers. But despite the album’s apparent lack of a singular style, the submissively beautiful timbre of the Kings of Convenience is consistent throughout Riot on an Empty Street. By keeping instrumentation minimal and familiar, they emphasize the simple beauty of harmony and revel in making pop music that sounds … well, nice.
CLICK HERE to see a video for the single “I’d Rather Dance with You”…