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Junior Boys – Big Black Coat

on February 02, 2016, 12:01am
B
Release Date
February 05, 2016
Label
City Slang
Formats
digital, vinyl, cd

When music becomes a project instead of a passion, it’s time to take a break. Canadian electronic duo Junior Boys embrace that with wide arms on their fifth album, Big Black Coat, where they return harsher than ever. In fact, developing tough skin was a given. In the five-year gap between 2011’s It’s All True and this year’s LP, Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus pursued solo endeavors. Didemus released several songs under the name Diva and launched his own label. Greenspan’s time off, much of which was spent working with Caribou and Jessy Lanza, can be heard directly in the threads of Big Black Coat. As they depart from their early combination of synthpop and R&B into harder, accented electronics reminiscent of early Detroit techno, Junior Boys push forward with one of their most liberating releases in a decade — and, best of all, they sound happy doing it.

The duo’s temporary break saw Greenspan delving into record shelves where he rediscovered his love for early Detroit techno. The album’s seven-minute title track throws every influence against the wall, splattering over one another in an enticing mess that grows into a mural of a song. Like R-Tyme or Moodymann, Junior Boys combine hollowed bass with sparkling, minute bursts of synth, going light on the drum pads in favor of hi-hat hiccups, building a massive sound that never actually drops. Strangely, that works. No excessive payoff is needed when the path to get there is consistently comfortable.

Big Black Coat avoids finely tuned structure. Whether it’s the experimental shifts in “Love Is a Fire” or the plummeting bass of a Syntion Fénix synth on “M & P”, Junior Boys charge forward without looking back to modify. That’s a big deal. Their last two albums saw them working towards perfecting individual songs. Big Black Coat, however, focuses on speed and natural details over organization and shaped moments. Even when taking something pre-written like Bobby Caldwell’s 1978 hit “What You Won’t Do for Love”, the two shoot off in a passionate direction, churning out the most exuberant cover of Caldwell’s hit single that’s come around in the past decade. That lack of forced ideas allows for flexibility and projection, two of dance music’s critical elements for in-the-moment enjoyment.

As romantic as uncontrolled songwriting is, there’s a time and place for precision knives in the editing room. Junior Boys’ usual affinity for R&B drags on the album’s slower numbers. Without a driving force, heart-shaped songs like “No One’s Business” and “Baby Don’t Hurt Me” lay still, staring at a groove instead of employing one, like made-for-TV dating ads from the ‘80s. It almost works when they reshape it into a Hot Chip style on “C’Mon Baby”, but those stiff handclaps and shrill synth scales can only do so much.

There’s an intentional departure from pop here. The 11-track release clocks in at exactly an hour, making it a little too long for a traditional electropop record but lengthy enough to entice a dance or two out of listeners. “Over It” ushers in the same energy by offering up Greenspan’s strongest vocal melody in a chorus that never overpowers. Tracks like “You Say That” qualify as pop as well in the ease at which they can be consumed. Apart from that, their structure separates them from the synthpop hits of Junior Boys past like “In the Morning” and “Double Shadow”. When swapped with soft techno, the lack of pop isn’t sorely missed.

It seems strange that two men who stepped away from a band they started in 1999 can find such a renewed sense of self by waving goodbye to the soft synthpop that made them famous. While it still falls short in holding attention from start to finish, Big Black Coat signals a welcome return. Junior Boys created their most uncomplicated album yet, which still holds their signature style, and with it comes a jagged body of music made soft to the touch thanks to Greenspan’s buttery vocals. Junior Boys appear comfortable in their own skin for the first time in years. Apparently, all they had to do to get there was scuff up the edges until callouses let them climb to new heights.

Essential Tracks: “Big Black Coat”, “Over It”, and “And It’s Forever”

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