Erlend Øye formed the Whitest Boy Alive with the intention of taking a break from Kings of Convenience’s restrained acoustic sound and making electronic dance music. But the group’s first album, 2006’s Dreams, fell far short of the electronic mark, sounding a lot like a plugged-in Kings of Convenience with a rhythm section. Dreams‘ catchy, indie-pop tunes seemed designed to get shy kids shaking in their bedrooms rather than to set dance floors on fire. With Rules, though, the Whitest Boy Alive’s dance ambitions are more in evidence. Daniel Nentwig’s keyboards and synths add a post-disco feel to the album, and the rhythm section (Sebastian Maschat on drums and Marcin Oz on bass) exercises lounge-like restraint throughout.
The end result is not exactly the electronica of the Whitest Boy Alive’s original manifesto. It’s more like easy listening with a funk flare, and, like all easy-listening, there are times when it falls decidedly flat. Like during the smooth schmaltz of “Intentions,” when something a bit more robust is in order. Like during the early Cure sounding “Dead End,” when the rhythm section could do with being a little less subdued. Or during the maracas-shaking of “Rollercoaster Ride,” when it’s the synths that aren’t forceful enough.
The one thing saving tracks such as the bouncy “Timebomb,” the Vekian “Courage” and the robotic blimp of “High on the Heels” is Øye himself, with his optimistic melancholic vocals and melodic guitar hooks. On “Gravity” it is his jangling riffs and plaintive singing, “She’s the gravity my life circles around,” that keeps the track from feeling utterly lifeless.
There are moments on Rules when vocals, guitar, keyboards and rhythm come together perfectly — on the bouncy opener “Keep a Secret” or on “1517,” despite (or because of) its firm nod toward Daft Punk. Album closer “Island” is perhaps the best moment on here. With its long, tense build-up and pseudo house climax, it leaves you wondering why there aren’t more bright, danceable, unrestrained songs like it on the album.
But maybe Øye answers that question himself when he sings that people in Northern Europe believe that “happiness exists in the world at a fixed amount” on “1517.” Maybe we can only get a fixed amount of electronic(ish) dance music from the Whitest Boy Alive per album. Maybe, for the time being, they’ll just have to be happy with making shy kids dance in their bedrooms.