Flint’s one-album wonders #10: Kings of Convenience – Riot on an Empty Street (2004)
As the season switches to autumn and we all start digging out our comforting rainy day albums, our protagonist reminisces on an album full of soothing warmth, gentle acoustic picking and gorgeous harmonies from a band who, for one album, discovered how to write great songs. And apologies for the lateness in the delivery of this, PC problems caused some delays.
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
From the reels of this record that I found
That lyrical excerpt from “Homesick”, Riot on an Empty Street‘s opening track, nails down why its parent album is such a lovely listen; emphasis on the word “lovely”. The backbone and foundation of Riot on an Empty Street are two harmonious voices on top of gently strummed and picked acoustic guitars and the occasional other instruments. The obvious comparison point are messieurs Simon & Garfunkel but the legendary singer/songwriter duo always had some big ambitions and ideas; the good gentlemen Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe on the other hand rarely stretch beyond the charms of being bedroom musicians. The atmosphere and intimacy of Riot on an Empty Street are more reminiscent of a private get-together in a private cabin than any world-conquering songwriter parades. It’s simply two men playing guitar and singing with enough warmth to replace the fireplace that’s surely crackling somewhere in the corner.
There are two other Kings of Convenience albums. The debut, Quiet Is the New Loud, is a bit of a green, wet-behind-the-ears kind of deal and an archetypical example of the pitfalls many acoustic singer/songwriters fall in, being a largely pleasant listen but with no actual meat into it. 2009’s Declaration of Dependence on the other hand saw the duo reunite after a long break of various side projects and explorations towards different styles, coming together to create a bunch of acoustic filler that neither of them really were in the mood for anymore. Riot hits that sweet spot where its creators are still excited about what they’re creating, whose skills have now refined to really make good of the path they’ve chosen and whose interest in new ways to do things results in fleshing out the songs in a manner that only does good for them.
While its basis is very much on the simple and minimal, Riot never feels monotonous because here and there it likes to shake things up a little. A rhythm section appears in a few tracks and actually plays its role in an interesting enough matter that they take charge of the song positively. Feist lends her vocals on a few tracks, further solidifying her status as an A-class guest featurer. “Know-How” brings both of those together to an absolute delight. “Gold in the Air of Summer” has a horn section to die for and the piano/horn-driven bridge is an emotional journey and a triumph of arrangement. The biggest departure is “I’d Rather Dance with You” – an adorably twee, ridiculously singalongable and charmingly bouncy full-on indie pop number that comes out of nowhere and makes the world a brighter place for the little over three minutes it goes on. When things are kept simple, it’s still incredibly effective: “Homesick” and “Surprise Ice” in particular are exactly the sort of thing you’d desire to hear from a record like this, the former a soothing welcome and the latter a heart-trembling slice of desolate beauty.
There’s no misses among the twelve tracks and each one is genuinely delightful in one way or another (and I mean this in a way that they do bring a smile on one’s face), but Riot on an Empty Street’s greatest quality is how comforting it is. The production is just right to bring the warmth of acoustic instruments to the forefront and the vocals are a great example of doing a lot with little. Øye, the lead singer of the two, has a voice that doesn’t have a particularly far range or great evocative depths, but his tone is that of a friend you could know in real life and that’s what makes it work. His soft huskiness sounds as soothing as the instruments and when the album lays a song upon song of these wonderfully calm, beautiful little acoustic pieces the overall effect is a serene, peaceful one. That you can tap your foot along to the tunes and hum their melodies for days is a bonus.
If there’s a perfect time to listen to the album, it’s right now in the autumn – a rainy day outside, something warm in a cup in your hands, music gently filling the warm indoors. It’s music made exactly for those precious little cliché-like moments in life when the world seems to have calmed down and everything is just fine for a while.
I’d Rather Dance with You