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February 11, 2011

PopMatters [album review] | The Whitest Boy Alive "Rules"

by Cara Nash
1 April 2009
Rating: 7 out of 10

By now some may be frustrated with Erlend Øye’s refusal to expand his vocal horizons. The Norwegian singer has moved from folk to electronic, but whatever genre he tackles, he maintains that same effortlessly smooth, refrained and detached voice. However, while some may find Øye’s voice clinical, it is also what makes his projects so unique; the music and the vocals blend together to produce one smooth, singular, wistfully daydreaming expression.

Since emerging on the scene, Øye has led somewhat of a double life. He has played frontman to a number of outfits. His band Kings of Convenience helped pioneer the new acoustic movement in 2001, delivering a debut full of delicate, whispery folk. His other artistic persona indulges the MC inside him as the singer to the minimalistic dance-pop band the Whitest Boy Alive. The band’s 2002 debut, Dreams, contained lyrics of relationships and heartache set to smooth electronic beats, creating a chilly atmosphere of winter crispness. The album maintained that delicate wistfulness and melancholy unique to Øye. This year’s Rules is more inclined toward old-school lounge jazz than its predecessor, with cool, understated jams mixed with modern European electronics. As can be expected, each element of the sound has been applied with obsessive meticulousness, creating melodies both unfailingly polite and slyly innovative.

The opening “Keep a Secret” kicks off with a pretty versatile bass line, a tight beat, and some synths over the top. Some glimmery percussion and dappled electronics fall into place halfway through, and that roughly describes the formula for the whole album. But it’s a good formula. And Rules is pretty consistent as a result of sticking to this white-boy groove. The album’s highlight is “Courage”, and I foresee a lot of indie kids scooting to the dance floor if this song were to grace the speakers of a European nightclub. Over stuttering synths and fast-paced instrumentation, Øye sings about the universal experience of putting your heart out there: “No love can be guaranteed / It don’t come with no warranty / It’s the leap that you have to make / It’s the risk we all must take”. Toward the end of the song, Øye declares, “If you want me, show some courage”, and the word “courage” is repeated over and over again, oddly reminiscent of the climatic refrain in LCD Soundsystem’s bittersweet “Someone Great”. As in that song, the effect here is strangely sincere and uplifting.

Like the band’s debut, mixed among the morals and the cheerfulness in Rules are the other emotions: jealousy, insecurity, and heartache. Such sentiments are present on “Rollercoaster Ride”, indicating that perhaps Øye does not have the courage he sings of, a notion that’s both comforting and depressing. Øye tries to convince himself that it’s better to believe that it’s over, instead of “waiting everday for a line / for a sign from you”. The song’s almost swaggering pace is wistful and accepting, never evolving into anything experimental. On “Gravity” Øye explores the dynamics and complexities of friendships when it comes to the same girl, delivering a warning: “You only want to be with her because she’s mine / You will lose with me as a friend if you cross that line / She’s the gravity my life circles around”. The song ends with a polished jam. The closing “Islands” is the album’s longest track, finding the band at their most sprawling and chaotic. Frenzied bass, synths, and electronics are layered over one another, swirling around each other and falling apart.

Rules moves smoothly from one track to the next. Sometimes it does all feel a little too formulaic, a little too rational. It’s as if Øye and his band are someone coolly assessing heartache and love from a distance and one wants Øye and the music to just loosen up and reveal something rawer. But as Øye states on “Promise Less Or Do More”, “No need to fight about it / No need to shout about it”, and while we may want him to lose it for a moment, he has a point. There’s something oddly refreshing about refrain in an indie world which is often too full of bloated, wounded emotion.


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