Kings of Convenience – Riot on an Empty Street

Kings of Convenience
Riot on an Empty Street

Erlend Øye, the man best known for his solo electro-pop work DJ Kicks, has shifted gears completely to become one-half of the organic, subdued collective Kings of Convenience. In sharp contrast to the mechanical, computer-driven music of DJ Kicks, Riot on an Empty Street is shockingly acoustic. Most of the songs on the disc are driven almost exclusively by the strumming of acoustic guitars and of Øye’s smooth crooning. The resultant sound is one of intimate bedroom pop; it’s hard to imagine a Kings of Convenience show with more than about a dozen people in attendance, sitting cross-legged on the floor whilst nodding their heads dreamily. Even the production seems to contribute to the warm, personal feel of the album; the guitars and vocals are miked dangerously close, resulting in gentle immediacy that suits the Kings’ sound quite well.

Album-opener “Homesick” starts off with melancholy guitar plucking and the lament of a modern worker drone enchanted by his music: “I lose some sales / and my boss won’t be happy / but I can’t stop listening to the sound / of two soft voices, blended in perfection / on the reels of this record that I found.” The song is perhaps best defined as “gentle;” Øye seems to singing into a tissue, afraid of its breaking under the force of the air escaping from his lungs. “Misread” continues in the same vein, but with more diverse instrumentation; this time, a piano and strings join the strummed acoustic guitar to great effect while Øye bewails the lonely life of those who know more than they should: “How come no one told me / all throughout history / the loneliest people / were the ones who always spoke the truth,” and at the end of the song, Øye is left with a choice: “I guess it’s up to me now / should I take that risk or just smile?” He never does provide an answer on Riot – the complacent music is hardly offensive enough to be risky, yet the lyrics often hint at disquieted undertones beneath.

And there you have it; two songs in, you pretty much know what you’re in for. With few exceptions, Riot is a subdued affair, heavily reliant on the finger-picking skill and charisma of Øye and his partner, Erik Glambek Bøe. One such exception is “I’d Rather Dance with You,” an uncharacteristically upbeat, almost danceable song. This time drums join the fray, providing a simple, propulsive beat while Øye turns off his mind completely: “I’d rather dance with you than talk with you.” The song is a nice changeup in pace from the rest of the album, and its placement towards the end of the record is wise.

Unfortunately, the songwriting takes a turn slightly downwards in the last few tracks. “Surprise Ice” tries to come off as artfully restrained, but it ends up just being boring; the lyrical centerpiece of the song – “Love comes like surprise ice on the water” – doesn’t help the situation much. Album-closer “The Buildup” fares similarly; short of an obnoxious female vocal guest, “The Buildup” has nothing to offer that the rest of the album did not.

Sadly, Øye and Bøe are unable to rid themselves of the usual pitfalls of quiet singer/songwriter types. The majority of the record is solid and enjoyable, but taken in its entirely, Riot is a bit tiring. The duo’s nimble fingers tire after about eight songs, and the rest is essentially superfluous filler. Despite this fact, anyone even mildly interested in subdued acoustic music should give this a look; even if it isn’t a perfect album, it still has plenty of interesting moments to offer. In the end, Riot on an Empty Street is a lot like sitting by the fire, drinking hot chocolate, and looking out the window at the snow outside; it’s pleasantly relaxing for a while, but if you sit there too long, you’ll fall asleep.