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Erlend Øye - Unrest

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Artist: Erlend Øye

Album: Unrest

Label: Astralwerks

Review date: May. 15, 2003

Erlend Øye sports his Kings of Convenience pedigree with some confidence in its significance, as if to validate his right to collaborate with the likes of Scott Herren and Morgan Geist. In terms of the wider population, such credentials are as easily qualified by a nice haircut as membership in a Norwegian indie-folk duo. Questions of present notoriety aside, the initial Kings songbook, seldom short of brilliant, far exceeded the meager response it elicited, as well as the ire of ’60s pop purists. With 2000’s self-titled debut on Kindercore, the outfit produced the millenium’s first legitimate claim to sentimental genius and pop austerity. Referential but never derivative, the subdued ruminations merited the Simon & Garfunkel comparisons, but only in a structural capacity. For whereas Simon’s lyrics invariably gave shape to his own very tenable personality, the indelible mark of authorship, Øye and cohort Eirik Glambek Bøe forged a single, shared identity of pure sentiment, an understated longing that hovers just north of the fragile acoustic figures. Save for its occasionally baroque phrasing, the first Kings of Convenience record was a north European emotional coup, wherein pop minimalism left enough space for implied tragedy, and enough versatility for a generation of Volkswagen advertisements.

In the interim, Kings of Convenience have done everything short of recording new material, piling a monument to kitsch mediocrity on the frail foundation of initial achievement. First, the duo dressed up its debut material for a proper Source/Astralwerks release, gaining more in digital fidelity than formal presentation. Many of the same tracks made a third appearance on Versus, the useless collection of remixes that followed, while Øye’s first step in electro reinvention graced Royksopp’s middling Melody A.M., a vocal contribution amounting to two tracks of vocoded mess. In the strange, and sadly predictable chronology of sensitive, sensible rockers turned disco, the solo effort is seldom far behind.

With Unrest, Øye swaps Bøe for a bevy of electronic producers: 10 single-track collaborations in 10 different cities. More than contrived, the geographic gimmick is inherently problematic, and Unrest is less a catalog of cross-national electronic talent than a compendium of Øye’s friends, who, predictably, have rather similar tastes. This isn’t to say the material is by any means poor, only dispensable, and far from groundbreaking: we already knew Prefuse 73 had a penchant for vocal collaboration, and Schneider TM a distinct and ephemeral sensibility. Meanwhile, the more obscure representatives of the European electronic community (that means you, Mr. Velcro Fastener) seem likely to languish in the same anonymity, only not so much for a lack of dexterity as the absence of distinction in this particular context. Whether by fault of Øye’s rolodex, or some bland industry mandate for aesthetic “continuity,” too many of the tracks mine the same appropriated beats and textures of ’80s synth-pop, as errant nostalgia and tired house dynamics leave little room for the concept to truly succeed.

Despite the difficulties of the record as a whole, some of the individual personalities therein, at least among the more notable contributors, remain evident, and Unrest boasts a handful of solid singles. There’s a nice mix of disco tragedy and self-deprecation on the Kompis track (with its corresponding, and patently bizarre, video, directed by Jarvis Cocker), while Schneider TM’s “Like Gold” summons the emotional sincerity of the German IDM camp. Surprisingly, the only vaunted track to fall short is Geist’s, which, while technically sound, lacks the neutral swagger characteristic of his Metro Area material. The Soviet collaboration, “Sheltered Life,” is a pleasant but unremarkable song, and representative of the record’s primary shortcoming: most of the producers accommodate Øye’s wisteria reflections, but few manage to integrate them into the track itself. There’s an unfortunate tendency to favor the drum machine over synth textures throughout the project, while Øye’s understated delivery demands melody, and many of the beats render his lyrics incidental. Unrest’s protagonist decided to take his bedroom compositions to the dancefloor, but the noncommittal outcome finds him at home in neither setting.

As much as I hate to play favorites, and especially in such a predictable manner, the record’s Prefuse 73 track, “Every Party Has a Winner,” stands far above its peers, both aesthetically and conceptually. Herren’s contribution lends itself more to the gentrified, down-tempo sounds of last summer’s ’92 vs. ’02 Collection than the hardline beats of his Prefuse full-lengths, and while the style seems to suit Øye well enough, it also reinvents him, framing the vocalist in a languid, removed disposition. The track validates the collaborative agenda by allowing collision, documenting the synthesis of composite, jazz-inflected hip hop with a colder, more angular pop aesthetic. It’s a contractual clause that apparently escaped many of the other contributors, who mostly fail to challenge Øye, to make his snot-nosed, skinny man antics stand up in a different context, a problem most immediately evident in the absence of varying electronic styles on Unrest. Rather than tripping over beats, and finding a new language for his narrative romances through artistic adaptation, Øye gets off easy with a caché of Casio escapism, and the record suffers for it.

Deriving poetry from stylized social isolation, Øye’s decision to go it alone is well suited to his own self-image, if not entirely consistent with objective reality, and his pithy lyricism plumbs an appropriately quotidian dimension. His ruminations on continental bourgeois tedium follow surprisingly well on the tradition of Scandinavian existentialism, while the introduction of sterile electronic parameters serves to reinforce the point, but nothing more. Rather than challenge the emotional potential of a synthetic genre, a gesture that’s only as feasible as the limits of imagination, Øye scripts a vocal accompaniment to electronic instrumentation; he sings as if he has little faith in the versatility of the equipment, even the producers themselves, and in this succumbs to redundancy. For all its self-aggrandized potential, Unrest remains an exercise in pedestrian pop, flawed in its logic, and faltering in its static delivery.

By Tom Roberts

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