Although Junip insists they are a band first and foremost, they are probably José González’s band for most of the world. Partly that’s because his international solo fame with 2005’s Veneer and 2007’s In Our Nature yielded the surplus spotlight they needed, after 12 years of existence, to release their debut full-length Fields in 2010 and have anybody care. Partly, that’s because of González’s voice. His epicene pipes never surpass anonymous soft rock adequacy, and yet something arresting really is there – arresting enough, at least, to land the humble Swede’s bare-bones cover of “Heartbeats” (credit fellow humble Swedes the Knife) a Sony advert.
And partly, Junip is José González’s band because the band is more than happy to let González – as singer and songwriter and, to a lesser extent, guitarist – take the fore. It’s not that he does the heavy lifting, it’s that there’s no heavy lifting to do: on their several EPs, Fields, and now Junip, Junip commits to a kind of coffee-shop psychedelia, in which students of Nuggets buy minivans and behave themselves. Whatever heady flourishes drummer Elias Araya and organist Tobias Winterkorn do work up never divert González’s MOR navigation. His singing splits the difference between Stevie Nicks and Nick Drake, and the band’s sound follows suit; if Junip leans in the direction of Fleetwood Mac’s slick pop affect, like Pink Moon, it’s still quiet no matter how loud you crank the volume.
That prevailing gentleness may cause their flirtation with grander ambitions to catch you off-guard. Opening track “Line of Fire” seems strategically sequenced to do exactly that. It begins fully formed with a synth sustain and a light flamenco rhythm. “What would you do / If it all came back to you?” González asks as his guitar wraps softly around the beat. “Each crest of each wave / Bright as lightning.” A couple verses later, Araya’s snare asserts itself, and the stakes rise: “Put to the test / Would you step back from the line of fire?” When the chorus kicks in, so does Winterkorn’s cresting Moog, giving the song unannounced grandiosity. Out of the Trojan horse of Latin-tinged easy listening comes a soaring stadium anthem on the order of U2 and Coldplay. In contrast to Bono or Chris Martin, though, González matches symphonic sweep with blunt realism: “No one else around you / No one to understand you / No one to hear your calls / Look through all your dark corners / You’re back up against the wall/Step back from the line of fire.” It makes for an effective stirring of the spirit, partly by refusing to condescend to glib earnestness, but mostly by blossoming out of such an unassuming and, frankly, unpromising beginning.
The rest of Junip never quite matches its first track. The Afro-tinged “Walking Lightly” comes close, but González’s monotonous, repetitive vocal holds Araya’s robust polyrhythms at arm’s length, as if he’s much too cool to dance. Similarly, “Your Life Your Call” is aloof from its own elastic bassline, and González’s appeal to either “stand up or enjoy your fall” teeters uncertainly between irony and candor. “Villain” drowns his voice in reverbed, percussive jamming, suggesting what Junip might sound like as an instrumental post-rock outfit, but at just barely two minutes, it’s little more than a lark. In its atmospheric, likeably modest way, so is Junip, which faces the line of fire, only to step back.