A kind of hush

Before we go too far, let’s get one matter straight: When it comes to volume, I’m not a wuss. To quote Kiss, “I love it loud.” Leaving a rock show or rave with tinnitus often fills me with a perverse sense of bravado: “I’m no earplug-wearing lightweight!” The other night at the Mogwai gig at the Showbox, even as friends stuffed bar napkins in their ears, I found myself moving closer and closer to the speakers, relaxing every muscle in my body and letting the roaring guitars pummel my body like a masseur in a Turkish bathhouse. I simply dissolved into the waves of sound, blissfully at one with the music.

But if life is about achieving balance through the juxtaposition of extremes (the old “every action has an equal and opposite reaction” idea), now more than ever people need quiet too. The modern world is a deafening place, filled with sirens and shouting and televisions blaring. And the entertainment industry just keeps pumping up the volume: More car chases! More explosions! More Limp Bizkit!

In the ’60s and ’70s, radio made room for introspective moments from Janis Ian and Donovan. But in the ’70s, thanks to adult contemporary crap like England Dan & John Ford Coley, low-decibel ditties became hopelessly uncool. Now the closest we get to a moment of respite on the mainstream airwaves is the latest power ballad from Mariah or Celine. Christina Aguilera doesn’t know the meaning of “quiet,” but it’s hardly her fault, given the climate the little idiot has grown up in.

What Miss Bad Hair Extensions doesn’t realize is that bringing the volume down a notch can be far more arresting than screeching at the top of one’s lungs because it requires listeners to pay attention. Peggy Lee has enjoyed an extraordinary 65-year career while rarely raising her voice above a whisper. The beauty of attending a great show by Elliott Smith (at least circa his first few solo albums) or Low or the Softies is the way you have to focus your concentration so completely that the rest of the world melts away. (Well, that’s the idea. Inevitably there is an audience member who won’t pipe down, prompting the old “Is this a rock show or a library?” quarrel.)

Whether we’re talking about Van Halen or Beethoven, loud music is expansive in nature; it can make an individual feel powerful and larger-than-life, but it also sends our collective spirits soaring up and outward. Quiet music, on the other hand, invites us to contract, go into the self, and concentrate on small details, to the exclusion of all the noise and the hurry that bombard us ceaselessly in everyday life.

Norwegian duo Kings of Convenience clearly understand these notions. The group’s second full-length, Quiet Is the New Loud (Astralwerks) recalls less-is-more charmers like Everything but the Girl’s eponymous debut album (check out the syncopated “Singing Softly to Me”), Simon & Garfunkel, and late-’80s Momus, back when he was content to rely on sharp wit and a keen sense of melody rather than dumb gimmicks to fuel his songs.

On the opening “Winning a Battle, Losing the War,” the acoustics are so intimate that the ear can easily distinguish the respective timbres of Erlend عe’s steel-string guitar and Eirik Glambek Be’s nylon-string one. The hand claps that punctuate “Toxic Girl,” the Kings’ variation on “Girl from Ipanema”- style unrequited longing (“Every day she’s seen with someone else/And every night she kisses someone new—never you”), feel more like thunderclaps in such a restrained setting.

Although many of the Kings’ subdued songs address themes of love gone awry, self-pity never creeps into the proceedings. It’s easy to get caught up in the lyrics (which, although rendered in flawless English, are betrayed as the work of Europeans by way too many references to train travel for a Yank). They’re filled with images that evoke a distinct sense of place and time: using a copy of the Guardian to ward off the rain (“Failure”), a midnight call from a forgotten lover (“I Don’t Know What I Can Save You From”), listening to music from passing cars (“Little Kids”).

Quiet Is the New Loud specializes in the kind of seductive, thought-provoking escapism that inspires us not only to get lost in a great book or movie but also to return to it repeatedly in pursuit of new rewards. If I have one complaint about this sublime record, it is the tongue-in-cheek title. Quiet is not the new loud. Quiet is a wonderful, underrated dynamic with unique properties all its own. And if you need more of it in your life, Kings of Convenience will be happy to oblige.