These days I tend not to "root" for many musicians, to pledge loyalty to an artist I loved when we both were young, or circle album release dates or try to anticipate when a record will leak. More often than not, I instead brace myself for disappointment-- even from those whose work I most cherish. It's a pessimistic and potentially sad approach, but one that unfortunately seems to cushion blows more often than result in pleasant surprises. With the debut full-length from Junior Boys, I let my guard down. After two EPs of glacial, silken electro-pop (2003's Birthday and this year's High Come Down), I just flat-out wanted more. Thankfully, I got it. Last Exit may be my anti-A Grand Don't Come for Free-- a little album I waited for with open arms rather than gritted teeth-- but its heights eclipse virtually all other music I've heard this year.
The (to date) quiet rise of the Junior Boys is well-documented in the virtual world of the blogosphere, which for the most part has gone totally bonkers for the Ontario trio. Over the past year, the rapturous praise has been so constant that listing off the band's generous number of touchstones has practically become sport. Tellingly, though, for every time someone says Junior Boys sound like Timbaland goes for New Pop, an amorous two-step trying to coax indie-pop onto the dancefloor, or David Sylvian rummaging through Martin Fry's wardrobe and Basic Channel's outtakes, that person is only telling a part of the tale. More often than not, Junior Boys capture the mood and feel of many of these artists rather than ape their sounds. In fact, each of this record's 10 deceptively simple and very approachable tracks carry the distinct fingerprints of lead songwriter and singer Jeremy Greenspan, who manages to fold elements of nearly a quarter-century of forward-looking pop into a distinct sound without sounding either conceptual or trading on contradictions or the smoke-and-mirrors of attention-grabbing eclecticism.
Four of the album's tracks-- "Birthday", "Last Exit", "High Come Down", and "Under the Sun"-- were first released on last year's EPs and sit nicely alongside the new songs. Thankfully, Junior Boys are neither shying away from what they do best because of the success of those singles, nor failing in an attempt to reach those same heights. Among the new songs, "Teach Me How to Fight" is anthemic Sophistipop, a shrinking violet rallying cry; the nocturnal orchestral maneuvers of "Three Words" delicately flicker beneath "Neon Lights"; and "Bellona" flutters and clicks as Greenspan laments long days and lost opportunities.
So, yes, despite the high dance IQ and its luxuriously monochromatic sensuality, the record does seem very... indie. On "Teach Me", Greenspan is requesting to "show me what it's like to give back pain," as his paper-thin voice projects honesty, vulnerability and the puppy-dog loyalty of sentimental, pale-skinned boys. So thankfully that's the fey, Anglocentric early 80s sense of the phrase "indie," then, albeit dressed up with graceful, hopeful romanticism rather than self-deprecating fatalism. At times, that sense of hope seems buried under throbbing beats or kept at arm's length by cold, pristine sonics, but dip your toes beneath that sleek surface and you'll find an album of great warmth, beauty and even soul.
Scott Plagenhoef, pitchfork
Includes second LP with Fennesz remix of "Last Exit" and Manitoba remix of "Birthday" and two new tracks: "Unbirthday" and "A Certain Association." There's no hype accompanying this group's assured ascent, because Junior Boys are not particularly fashionable (yet), and their sensitive, soulful, serene sound tends to provoke a reflective, measured response from those who hear it, rather than the usual premature ejaculation of superlatives. Critics love to try to categorize Junior Boys, to pin down their distinctive style, but, as you'll appreciate when you play the album, that's a tricky thing to do. You can say that "Last Exit" sounds like X doing Y with Z if you like, but it's the songs -- the magnetic, mesmeric songwriting of Jeremy Greenspan -- that stay with you long after the comparisons have faded. His songs are vulnerable and sentimental, tender and romantic, without resorting to cliché. They're cutting-edge, but easy on the ear. They discreetly use clever arrangements and advanced techniques to make their synth-pop as human as possible. They have a talent for writing familiar songs in an unfamiliar way, and for writing unfamiliar songs in a familiar way. "Last Exit" succeeds in every respect because Junior Boys execute their ideas with style and grace. This is charming music for a charmless age, old-fashioned pop performed in an exciting new way.