Erlend Øye is an alternative pop polymath. Whether singing hushed relationship centric dramas as one half of indie folk duo Kings of Convenience or knocking out smooth electro-pop under his own moniker (2003’s Unrest and 2004’s DJ Kicks), Øye seems to be able master any genre he pleases. With Berlin based The Whitest Boy Alive’s debut, Dreams (2006), he found the middle ground — minimalist rock with a whole lotta groove. Rules builds upon the foundations of that disc but ups the danceable quotient considerably and in doing so ends up owing more of a debt to house than to rock or pop.
By and large though the formula of a typical The Whitest Boy Alive song remains the same: To Sebastian Maschat’s pneumatic drum machine-like precision of a four on the floor beat (albeit with a syncopated high hat pattern) add a funky, if repetitive bass line courtesy of Marcin Öz; onto that overlay a simple guitar riff or sequence of jazz/funk chords by Øye and of course his distinctive, ghostly vocals. For variance this time ’round copious amounts of keyboards, courtesy of Daniel Nentwig, are included. Barely featured on Dreams, his piano, organ and synthesiser are now prominent in the mix and often provide the central melody.
The shift to keyboards and harder rhythms makes the majority of Rules‘ eleven songs better suited for the dance floor or your next indie-electro party than say, as part of a Sunday afternoon spent identifying the gender neutrality subtext in modern indie pop. Yet amongst the beats there are nuggets for fans to mine until the next Kings of Convenience hits the streets (which will probably be in 2019 at their current rate of progress).
Erlend is disarmingly honest about his failure as a confidant in the perky opener “Keep a Secret”, while the breezy Caribbean flavoured “Intentions” sees Øye aiming for a higher vocal register, but unfortunately the communication breakdown theme is distinctly low brow. “Courage” starts off with minor chords but finishes as a Balearic House anthem whereas “Time Bomb” manages to hold interest even though it contains only one word (“ooer”) apart from the title. “High on Heels” uses synth washes much like Erlend’s solo work, before peeling off into the album’s recurring electro-house direction.
The rest of the tracks sail a similar course except for three which deviate back to rock’s safe shores. “Rollercoaster” is a reflective, keyboard free tale of pragmatism in which the narrator finally comes to realise a relationship is over. “Dead End” is a welcome, if short, foray into post-punk territory — its guitar solo and New Order-ish bass riff are especially pleasing. Album closer “Island” is an almost seven minute amalgamation of moody synthesier, cowbells, skeletal guitar riffs and Erlend philosophizing on John Donne’s proverb which has a fantastic build-up and climax.
Although The Whitest Boy Alive’s “live no overdubs” recording ethic and their “indie guy winds up in a euro-house club” genre is admirable you can but wish they’d broken their own rules a bit more often and offered greater variety for both the indie pop/rock crowd and dance aficionados.