The Whitest Boy Alive
he experience of listening to Dreams, a side project of Norwegian native Erlend Øye, is not so far removed from the experience of listening to Unrest, his 2003 solo album, or much of fellow countrymen Royksopp’s work. The only difference is the instrumentation, which on Dreams is steadfastly antithetical to Øye’s electronic persona, or so we’re inclined to believe. Dreams is all Rhodes, bass, guitar, and drums—so called “real” instruments, as employed on Kings of Convenience releases, Øye’s first musical concern—but when we consider what synths and laptops are coyly trying to sound like, it’s not an oppositional relationship after all. Electronic music is just more agile, lending human hands multiplicity and the illusion of virtuosity. At least, that’s the argument I arrive at after comparing Øye as an electronic artist to Øye as one third of the Whitest Boy Alive.
Not that WBA can’t play their instruments, but in filling the void between the club (solo Erlend Øye) and the delightful breakup/hangover one-two punch of the Kings Of Convenience, the Whitest Boy Alive collective seem to have forgotten why the middle-of-the-road, middle-of-the-night subgenre occupied by Dreams is so sparse. It just isn’t that interesting. What is interesting is that WBA have spent several years making electronic music, somehow arriving at the computerless Dreams, as if all the overlying programmed samples were stripped off the finished tracks in one purist moment of revelation. We’re left with the bare necessities, and if the listener can shake the nagging feeling that something is missing, Dreams as it happens, is always assonant and sometimes quietly affecting.
“Burning,” a composition so precise and metered it feels computer-generated, opens the album, borrowing the bedroomy rhythms of IDM and adhering to Øye’s quick, almost underwater lyrical delivery. It’s the Rhodes and bass guitar that hold their end of the bargain, keeping the track ‘intelligent’ and ‘dance,’ otherwise the electric guitar’s pretty, slurring arpeggios could convince most of us that we were listening to indie soft rock.
That dichotomy—the affectionate guitar and underused keyboard versus the bass and drums’ down tempo dance floor pulse—is what sustains Dreams, and redeems it, as long as fans of the genres Øye more capably traverses can accept the album for what it is. Very infrequently do the tracks stake a claim on any territory, let alone go anywhere. “Don’t Give Up” may be the only true winner. It’s as unbearably sluggish as the other tracks, but rife with melodic lines, lovely, subtle counterpoints of keyboard flits and guitar strums, and, above all, confidence. “Done With You,” with its steady, if simplistic, guitar melody, almost makes it there. Tracks like “Inflation” and “Fireworks,” on the other hand, are lighter than air in the worst sense; there’s nothing preventing them—or you—from drifting off. The exactitude of every track’s rhythm may induce alertness, but does not conceal the fact that the songs are for the most part narrow-minded—the chordal range too limited, the vocals too uniform, and the percussion monotonous.
The sexy bass climbs on “Golden Cage” and pornographic guitar intro to “Above You,” which is essentially a Jack Johnson song, are fun, but out of place with the painfully slow tempo and lyrics like, “Yes, of course I miss you / And I miss you bad / But I also felt this way / When I was still with you.” Danceable sad-sack music works, but it needs the driving force of twinkling-star synth pads, or house beats, or both, to be convincingly melancholy, as opposed to pathetic. Similarly, Jack Johnson works (in some circles), but we know, thanks to KoC, that Erlend Øye is capable of more. So much of Dreams falls flat because it essentially lacks conviction. The album can’t seem to find a physical place, let alone a metaphorical one, in which it can perform, either as a refreshing anomaly or as something that innovatively conforms to a genre. Electronic music wasn’t Erlend Øye’s first love, but it’s the last time Erlend Øye was loveable.