The northwesternmost outpost of the Hanseatic league--the drizzly harbor town of Bergen, Norway, nestled on the country's craggy west coast--is an unlikely hotbed for new music. But that's what it has become over the last decade. Now the band that kicked it all off, Kings of Convenience, return with their third album, Declaration of Dependence.
Sonically the duo falls somewhere on the arc connecting Simon & Garfunkel and Belle & Sebastian, deploying a double acoustic guitar attack and vocal harmonies and supplementing that with only an understated horn flourish here or a hushed drum line there. Their debut album was called Quiet is the New Loud and inspired something approaching a movement--not only in Norway but elsewhere, with bands like Turin Brakes hopping aboard in the UK.
Between Quiet and a remix version of the LP titled Versus, featuring rethinks from then-of-the-moment combos like Ladytron and Four Tet, the Kings of Convenience attracted enough attention abroad to open the door for what turned out to be a treasure trove of musical talent in Bergen, from the atmospheric trip-hop of Slowpho and the slinky dubadelica of Ralph Myerz & Jack Herren Band to the mournful alt-country of Ai Phoenix. Several of the acts--Royksopp, Sondre Lerche, Annie--also did well not only beyond the nearby fjords but across Europe and the US.
This year has turned out to be another watershed moment for the city, with five other significant Bergen artists all releasing albums alongside the Kings of Convenience. So how is the Bergen scene faring? Here's a rundown of this year's six-pack of Norge-pop.
Kings of Convenience, "Boat Behind"
The lyrics here--"We meet again after several years, several years of separation"--may well be a nod to the disparate lives members Erland Oye and Eirik Glambek Boe have led since breaking internationally. Erland moved to Berlin and put out a series of side projects, one of which, The Whitest Boy Alive, looked for a time as if it might become his main project, causing speculation about the demise of the Kings. But they're back together and as tuneful as ever, quickly reminding us with their delicate harmonizing, intricate acoustic guitar interplay, and hum-able melodies why they made such an impression in the first place.
Datarock, "Give It Up"
This is a jittery indie dance-pop act obsessed with track suits and the Talking Heads. The latter so much so, in fact, that on their recent Red LP they did a song called "True Stories" using as its lyrics only Talking Heads song titles. Their debut album featured the goofball party anthem "Fa Fa Fa"; Red, their second album, is another successful display of the band's ability to balance a winsome playful streak with crisply produced 80s-inspired tunes.
"True Stories" is offered as a free download via the widget below.
The early output of this cheeky electro-pop queen with indie cred included a song sung over a loop of Madonna's "Everybody" and another where she talked about spitting out boys like "Chewing Gum." Don't Stop, the follow-up to her debut Anniemal, will finally appear in mid-November after a five-year lag. In the meantime, of course, the world has come to Annie--UK acts Little Boots and La Roux stormed the charts there with a very similar aesthetic, for instance. What once seemed unique--sassy lyrics and indie-kid cool harnessed to unapologetically poppy synth-pop--now must sink or swim entirely on the tunes. There is some rehashing on Don't Stop: "I Don't Like Your Band" is almost a rewrite of "Chewing Gum." On some other songs she wisely seems to have learned from the recent competition, breaking out Ladyhawke-like guitars on "Bad Times"; the rolling breakbeats of "The Breakfast Song" hew closely to Ladyhawke's "Paris Is Burning." And while Don't Stop isn't as good as Ladyhawke's stunning self-titled debut, there are plenty of cute, pulsing tracks on it ("I Want To Take You Home," "Songs Remind Me Of You," "My Love Is Better") to keep you whistling along.
A free download of the catchy non-album single called "Anthonio" is here.
Sondre Lerche, "Heartbeat Radio"
Lerche is a classic singer-songwriter who composes on guitar and crafts peppy pure pop tunes reminiscent of 1960s jangle-pop acts, 1970s AM radio hits, and 1980s one-hit wonders like A-Ha. After a few musical diversions including a jazz album and a somewhat harder-edged LP, his latest record, Heartbeat Radio, released last month, marks a welcome--and successful--return to the pretty, unselfconscious guitar pop of his brilliant first two albums, Faces Down and Two Way Monologue.
Royksopp, "Happy Up Here"
The electronic duo struck a chord with the whimsical instrumental "Epel" from their 2001 debut, Melody AM. Another familiar track is "Remind Me," featured in a Geico TV ad (it's the song playing in the airport as a caveman drifts past a Geico ad on a moving sidewalk), with Erland Oye from Kings of Convenience singing on it. They've used any number of guest vocalists since, and their latest album, Junior, released earlier this year, features two Swedish it-girls, Robyn (who appears on "The Girl and the Robot") and Karin Dreijer Andersson of the Knife and Fever Ray (on "This Must Be It"). The upbeat Junior will be followed late this year by a mellow, wintry counterpart called Senior.
Casiokids, "Fot I Hose"
This is the leading edge of Bergen's next generation. Taking a page from the German indie scene, where the local language is the only way to go, this eclectic bunch sing in Norwegian--and, somehow, they are nonetheless being tipped as the next big thing on the strength of a recent series of gurgling, ticking singles that might best be described as afrobeat-meets-New Order. In addition to squelching proto-house synths, angular guitars and funky circling beats, their live performances also include puppets and projections, creating a wonderfully freaky blissed-out party vibe.
Download a free remix of this track here.
Follow Tim Mohr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/timmohr