The Whitest Boy Alive – Rules

At the beginning of the noughties the British press started to take notice of Norwegian bands, and the assorted acts associated with Telle records that benefited from this exposure had the mixed fortune to be slapped with the ‘Bergen Wave’ tag – a compartmentalising generalisation of the kind that is the bread-and-butter of the UK music rags, but that the town in question can’t help being offended by because of the patronising suggestion that before this time no music (of note at least) has ever been made there.

Every wave needs a poster-boy, and for Bergen’s surge it was the perhaps unlikely figure of Erlend Øye; his thick-rimmed glasses jutting out from beneath a shock of orange hair atop a gangly frame, his whispered croon adorning the fragile acoustic mantras of Kings of Convenience, the leaders of the ‘Quiet Is The New Loud’, well… wave. Hell, the guy was the poster-boy for a whole tide.

But there was always something calculated about Øye’s geek persona. Hit a trendy music event in his home town and there he’d be, throwing geek-chic shapes in the middle of the dancefloor, a pair of braces only partially hiding a T-Shirt for his own band, their name a knowing and embracing confirmation of his image, shouting it to the world: the Whitest Boy Alive.

This is the second effort from the Berlin-based quartet; three parts German and one part Erlend Øye. Their debut Dreams was a quiet delight: the band originally started out as an electronic music project, but soon discovered that they simply found that boring and detached. Instead the mission became to recreate the sounds and effects of electronics on their live instruments – they might be geeks but sitting in front of computer screens all day was quickly eschewed in favour of Marcin Öz’s bouncing bass, Sebastian Maschat’s hypnotic percussion, Øye’s regimented guitar incursions and bursts of wheezy 70’s keyboards courtesy of Daniel Nentwig. But quiet it was. They had rhythm, sure, but each song sounded like they had taken some bombastic funk-pop number and stripped it of all embellishment, stripped it down to its most basic stems, a minimalist dream-pop skeleton with Øye breathing over the top.

It’s almost four years since Dreams, and one thing in particular made me wonder if TWBA would think about fleshing out their sound: Fred Falke’s joyous remix of ‘Golden Cage’. Bathing the original in waves and swathes of warm lush house electronics Falke found (another) perfect match for Øye’s croon, creating a sleeper club hit, and arguably the band’s best song – TWBA even acknowledging its precedence over the original by adopting it for their live show. So is Rules an album of eleven free-flowing, booty-shaking, euphoric ‘Golden Cages’? No. In fact it’s probably even more minimal than before, but actually I’m rather glad.

There is a song on Rules called ‘Timebomb’. A mournful guitar echo adorns marching base and insistent drum chatter, before Øye dolefully opines ‘time… bomb, oh, oh, time… bomb’. And then that’s it. Some cymbals flutter, some synths chime, but there is no ascendance to any expected explosion, no build up to bombast, no element of warning in Øye’s sole vocal contribution. Because TWBA don’t do explosions, what they’re interested in isn’t the bang of the bomb but the ticking, and by the time you’ve given Rules a fair few listens you start to appreciate it too. It hit me in the supermarket. I’d listened again and again, trying to find a way in – there were few catchy singles to rival the snowballing eagerness of ‘Burning’ or the surly strut of ‘Done With You’ – but it all seemed so fleeting: there was nothing to hum along to. But then, out of the blue, there it was. Pondering whether to let the chicken have a bag of its own I suddenly found that my head was full of Whitest Boy Alive rhythms, maybe not even specific ones, just in the abstract. I was literally walking and breathing and seeing and chicken-packing to that sexy bass throb, the mesh of haughty guitar.

The band were quick to dismiss rumours that the album was titled Rules because each of the tracks dealt with a different regulation; but it is aptly named all the same. Much like the self-restraining film-makers of the Dogme 95 school, although probably far more incidentally, TWBA appear to conform to a set of self-imposed limits, and if you listen carefully you can hear them playing around within these purifying tenets. As if aware of his reputation for a kind of breathy monotone Øye constantly throws in little playful, and surely self-aware, vocal tweaks. ‘Intentions’ marries easy-listening organ to a twee vocal contribution that Øye burps in a markedly foreign-English lilt, before follow-up ‘Courage’ (proof if ever it was needed of where the latest Bergen-hopes The New Wine draw their inspiration from) is suddenly split by a stuck-record mangled bark of ‘courage, courage’. There’s humour in this ironic self-awareness too: ‘it’s a rollercoaster ride of emotion’ Øye lazily asserts at one point at his most deadpan over seeping lounge jazz.

Rules does take a while to get going, and however much you listen to it it doesn’t have as many lovable songs as Dreams did, but give it time and there’s much to enjoy. ‘Keep A Secret’ marries Øye’s totemic admonishments to a cold rhythm section and is a suitably urgent (by their standards) opener, ‘High On The Heels’ lets the synths out of the bag halfway through the record to provide the most dancey effort, but the band’s devotion to the real is charming here, as every grunt and wobble from the decades-old Italian keyboard shudders with a genuine life. ‘Promise Less…’ is a funky message from an impatient Øye: ‘love is a gift but rarely only a random thing/ it’s not enough to sit down and wait for a phone to ring’, and ‘Gravity’ is a genuinely impassioned and aching plea, the singer’s soporific lull breaking into an adolescent whine as he remonstrates that ‘you only want to be with her because she’s mine/ you will lose me as a friend if you cross that line.’

It is left to closer ‘Island’ to offer any hint of breaking the musical mould, a melancholy tidal refrain washing over a repeated taut bassline supplemented by swirling synths, as Øye’s voice becomes the vessel for a haunting loneliness; abandoned on an island, waves washing up on the shore. Lyrical waves, waves of sound, waves of subconscious assault at the supermarket checkout, the Bergen Wave, the Quiet Is The New Loud wave: Øye riding them all – the poster-boy – but much more than just a geeky face.

7.8/10

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2009

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