Ever since the Strokes revived the downtown punk-garage scene with the impetuosity of Joey Ramone and the influence of Alan Greenspan, the decibel meters have been busy with an unending stream of other bands with loud, basic sounds and names to match: the Hives, the Vines, the Liars. At this raucous party, acoustic guitars and soft voices are about as appropriate as a game of checkers at an orgy. But serenity in the midst of sonic fury is exactly what the Kings of Convenience are all about.
The Kings, who are scheduled to play their first U.S. concert at the Angel Orensanz Center at 172 Norfolk Street on Aug. 7, are a head-bobbing, floppy-haired duo from Norway whose real names-Eirik Glambek Boe and Erlend Øye-are much less convenient to pronounce than their band moniker. Their music derives from two melodic guitars, an occasional drum machine and baggage-free lyrics, which together create an emotional landscape that easily rivals Belle and Sebastian’s 1970 adolescent misadventures, minus the preciousness.
But just like the rock bands on the rougher side of the playground, the Kings are disciples of the 1960’s-Donovan and especially Simon and Garfunkel, of whom they do a killer imitation.
Despite the Kings’ uncanny brotherly consonance and their penchant for Thoreauvian contemplation on country lanes, their music is no gimmick. It’s so effortless and sincere that it sounds as if the boys are channeling some sort of sonic energy from a time and a place long tucked away.
Then again, energy may be too raucous a definition. The Kings’ last release, from 2001, was called, appropriately, Quiet Is the New Loud (Source), though it was essentially a sonically tricked-up repackaging of their eponymous first outing on the Kindercore label.
Like the new title, Quiet ‘s slick production by Coldplay producer Ken Nelson-perhaps hoping to work the magic that Tom Wilson did with Simon and Garfunkel’s original version of “Sound of Silence”-is mostly unnecessary. The Kings don’t really need Mr. Nelson’s addition of a bossa-nova-esque horn track to hit their marks as they do on the wistful and gorgeous “Parallel Lines,” a meditation on inseparability: “What’s the immaterial substance that envelops two? / That one perceives as hunger and the other, as food.”
While excessively ethereal at times, the Kings are lyrically capable of much more. A song like “Winning a Battle, Losing the War” melds nimble guitar chords and a story of inexplicable love-“even though she doesn’t want me around”-to make a song that’s pretty damn heartbreaking if you’re in that sort of mood. And after listening to many of these post-love love songs, you probably will be.
They don’t have the bohemian poetry of Paul Simon, but-as with the loud bands that have managed to strip down even Iggy Pop’s raw designs-the Kings’ simplicity speaks volumes. They walk the fine line between lovelorn need and comfortable solitude, without the slightest touch of irony. And even the most elliptical tracks are pretty afternoon jaunts, more damp Scandinavian hillside than 59th Street Bridge, that you can get lost on, or at least drift asleep to-which might be a perfect antidote to the Hives’ version of aural No-Doz.
– Alex Pasternack
Are We Not Mental? We Are GCvAH! Ha!
James Call must come first when assessing German Cars vs. American Homes, an indie-rock band that calls Greenwich Village home. Mr. Call is the lead singer, the show leader, the lyricist and the center of his own attention-a Jim Morrison/Weird Al hybrid with a manic sense of the struggle between art and social climbing. He has a bad haircut, two different kinds of epilepsy and a penchant for writing inscrutable lyrics.
Since Mr. Call and his band’s level of seriousness is often indecipherable, GCvAM are not easily described. Sonically, they run the gamut from the herky-jerk of Devo to the careening funk of Fishbone, to the cosmic jazz stylings of the late Frank Zappa. And like Zappa or the Talking Heads, GCvAH mine their surroundings for the absurdities of social pretense, rearranging pop and youth culture into something that is both comical and angst-ridden.
The band even wears this mindset on the sleeve of their latest CD, One in a Million (Mishap)-their first full-length album after a series of EP’s. The cover is a faux scratch-‘n’-win Lotto card that includes the directions: “Think you’re special? One in a million? GERMAN CARS VS. AMERICAN HOMES think otherwise.”
Of the 16 songs on the album, about half have lyrics directed at an invisible “you,” a seeming extension of Mr. Call’s warped yet observant perceptions of his social constraints as a high-school outcast, a failing acting student, or a participant in the N.Y.U. pseudo-artist party scene in Williamsburg and downtown Manhattan.
When he’s not railing against you, Mr. Call seems to be singing about himself. And on one track, “Vacuum”-a GCvAH staple that has appeared on two previous releases-the first- and second-person references meet in Mr. Call’s listless world:
“I read a classic book, / They say it’s worth a look, / I sing a pretty song, / I sing it all life long,” Mr. Call raps in his bored-art-student voice over synthesized Farfisa and bass sounds. “You think it’s vacuous, / It cleans up the mess, / I hear the TV’s on, / I’ve got my clothing on / V-A-C-U-U-M, / I’m in a vacuum, / You know you suck me up / V-A-C-U-U-M.”
The soundtrack backing Mr. Call’s lyrical neuroses is appropriately off-kilter. GCvAH’s instrumentation is as unusual as the mix of characters who play the individual parts. The band’s bizarre rock sound is driven by two synth-itars-keyboard synthesizers with guitar-like headstocks that the band Devo made famous in the early 80’s-played by Mr. Call and Greg Travis, who’s a computer programmer by day. Behind them, acting student Peter Hale plays a standard rock drum kit alongside former thespian Holt Richardson, who trades beats on his electronic drum pads and cymbals. Mr. Richardson also occasionally sings lead with Mr. Call. Sanford Livingston and Phil Lojerfo-who recently left the band, changed his name to the Pluto Nash –like Sketch Jupiter and moved to Amsterdam-round out GCvAH on, respectively, bass/cello and guitar. (Spencer Chakedis, who produced One in a Million , has since taken Mr. Lojerfo’s place.)
The resulting sound proves an ideal fit for Mr. Call’s disaffected lyrics, although it’s not exactly accessible. But like adolescent cigarette-smoking, once you get over the initial distaste, addiction’s just a few steps away-and hey, it’s the cool thing to do.