As far as sophomore slumps go, Röyksopp's The Understanding (Astralwerks) is a doozy. If you've been following the saga of Röyksopp—clever Norwegians Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland—you've probably had your socks (and every other article of clothing) knocked off by their utterly charming 2002 debut full-length, Melody A.M. The Stranger's Charles Mudede has been known to hum the duo's "So Easy" for hours, testing Data Breaker's patience (more a comment on Mudede's humming skills than a dis of the melody, which Röyksopp lifted from Gals and Pals' cover of Bacharach and David's "Blue on Blue").
Why is Melody A.M. so sweet? Partially because Röyksopp are one of the few electronic units capable of imbuing kitsch and cuteness into their tracks without inducing nausea. "Eple," for example, is powered by a carefree, bleepy synth motif that makes me want to skip down the street like a 7-year-old girl, and that rarely happens in Data Breaker land. That the beat is almost as funky as the funkiest Boards of Canada track is the sublime frosting on this festive fruitcake. Elsewhere, tracks like "Sparks" give Portishead a run for their chilled, torch-song money while "Poor Leno" (featuring the affecting vocals of Erlend Øye) stakes a claim for the new genre of emo house, a potentially horrid concept that sounds enchanting in Röyksopp's ice-cold hands. And "She's So" boasts a gorgeously florid sax air that could make the most intolerant Talibanista swoon. Jazzy downtempo funk doesn't come any swankier than this.
Of course, artists crave change, even if their fans don't always want to follow their every permutation—and one can't begrudge Röyksopp for diverging from their winning formulae. But it's a shame they've gone on such a flavorless tangent.
On The Understanding, it sounds as if the band airbrushed all of their charming quirks and geared the production style and arrangements for less-discerning ears. Whatever funk these pale dudes displayed on Melody A.M. has dissipated into Ikea-sterile politeness. The funkiest track here, "Sombre Detune," is as orderly—and exciting—as a German accountant's office.
The Understanding's default mode is anonymous, Euro-trahnz schmaltz that's not even good enough for the sequel to Run, Lola, Run. The dreamy synth pop of "Only This Moment" practically evaporates in the headphones. For variation, Röyksopp try their hand at ambience on "Dead to the World"; though it's somewhat pretty, it foolishly embraces Eno and Vangelis's blandest traits. Even the usually dynamic Chelonis R. Jones of Get Physical Records slips, sounding like a weak Prince imitator on the frou-frou, skittery R&B of "49 Percent."
Röyksopp are indisputably talented producers, but they've wandered off on an ill-advised tangent that doesn't play to their strengths or reveal their endearing personalities.
Röyksopp play Fri Sept 16 with Annie at the Showbox, 1426 First Ave, 628-3151, 8 pm–2 am, $15 adv/$18 DOS, 21+.