The vast, seemingly infinite world of web journals on the Internet (otherwise known, unfortunately, as the “blogosphere”) has been going strong for the past four or five years, but these days especially, it seems anyone who has an opinion has a blog, something especially true when it comes to music fans. Until this past year, however, the remarkable influence of blog buzz hadn’t really been felt. In 2004, MP3 blogs have been a godsend to many people who are hungry for great new music, and a collection of excellent blogs that center specifically on music criticism have become daily reading material for music geeks everywhere. When an MP3 is posted, or if one critic digs a new CD, the readers write about the same thing on their own blogs, post their opinions on message boards, and before you know it, unbeknownst to those who aren’t wired, a strong groundswell of hysteria over a new release has grown exponentially, to the point where, after months of obsessive message board discussion and blog comments, on the day the much-hyped album is finally released, you get frustrated indie geeks chastising poor, clueless record store clerks, exclaiming, “Whaddya mean, you don’t have the new (—-) album?!”
Hamilton, Ontario’s Junior Boys know about this post-millennial form of word-of-mouth all too well. After trying unsuccessfully to get labels interested in their new form of electro-pop (they were rejected by every label they approached), they were asked by a friend to post some MP3s on his web site, and not long after that, the critics came a-knockin’, and the group’s leader, Jeremy Greenspan, found himself sending copies of his demo to interested writers instead of labels. As the praise grew, the band lucked into signing with uber-hip ElectroKin Records in the UK, and released the Birthday/Last Exit single late last year, to even greater praise. By spring of 2004, if you were an indie fan with a computer, you knew who Junior Boys were, and you probably had a handful of their MP3s already. Their upcoming debut album became one of the most highly anticipated records of the year, and when the album, entitled Last Exit, was leaked on the internet back in March, well, the bloggers were even more ecstatic. Over the summer, it got to the point where curious North American listeners simply assumed that the album was already out on this side of the Atlantic, only to be both bewildered and disappointed upon learning that it was a UK release only. By the time summer rolled around, almost two years after coming dangerously close to failing miserably, Greenspan, and his collaborators Matt Didemus and Johnny Dark, had not only a small, fiercely dedicated fanbase of cyberhipsters, but also a new North American distribution deal with Domino Records, who, with artists like Franz Ferdinand and The Notwist on their roster, couldn’t be any cooler these days.
So at long last, Last Exit has been released domestically, and people in North America can finally can find out what the blog community has been going on about for ages now: that it’s one of the most sublime albums of 2004, completely deserving of all the praise, an album that dares to incorporate familiar retro sounds with forward-thinking musical creativity. Good members of the Commonwealth that they are, Greenspan, Didemus, and Dark take some of the more trendy urban sounds from Merry Ole, and proceed to nice them up, in their inimitably Canadian way. The stuttering, electro, two-step beats that characterize the best of today’s UK garage music, primarily those of Dizzee Rascal and Wiley, dominate Last Exit, but instead of repeating the same formula, Junior Boys swipe those hyperkinetic beats, and give them a lighter, airy feel, lifting the music from the grimy streets up into the stratosphere.
The album’s quite ingenious, really. At first it sounds as minimalist and arty as electroclash, but in actuality, it possesses much more emotion and songwriting skill, something that the recent, highly pretentious 80s electro revival was completely incapable of. The herky-jerky, synth-driven rhythms will remind many of producer Timbaland (Missy Elliot, Bubba Sparxx), and those two-step beats will draw the aforementioned Dizzee/Wiley comparisons, but what makes Last Exit truly unique are its vocal hooks and synthesizer melodies, which sound drawn directly from the best of 80s dance pop, such as Human League, New Order, and OMD, meshing perfectly with the contemporary rhythms and song structures. The hook in “High Come Down” has a jaw-dropping, Hall & Oates style melody in the chorus, and “Three Words” sounds like it could have been a perfect love theme from a John Hughes movie 20 years ago, as Greenspan whispers and croons like a fashionably coifed new romantic. The gorgeous “Teach Me How to Fight” comes to a gentle climax with a delicious, upper register bassline that echoes New Order’s Peter Hook, while the fabulous “More Than Real” has Greenspan evoking Bernard Sumner, with his impassioned, yet somewhat detached vocal style, the instrumentation sure to remind listeners of Gillian Gilbert’s catchy synth arrangements. Hell, if the entire ‘80s pop vibe wasn’t enough, “When I’m Not Around” has a steamy, saxophone solo, completely devoid of irony, that comes from out of nowhere.
The highlights of Last Exit remain the tracks that were released back in 2003. The title track is even more minimal in its production than the rest of the album, with only the barest, sparsest hint of sharp, sparse beats, some tiny synth chords that lightly flutter in and out of the mix, and an incredibly subtle bassline, as Greenspan sings in a hushed tone. Just when you think the song is going to peter out, it wakes up, and carries on for a few more hypnotic minutes, the band keeping things extremely simple all the while. “Birthday”, on the other hand, has a more insistent synth arrangement, not to mention a much more adventurous rhythm section of an urgent bassline and swift garage beats, but the lyrical subject matter is much more melancholy, going back to the halcyon days of new romanticism two decades ago (“You’ve gone and then you’ve missed my birthday/You’ve gone and left me on my own”), the sad tone masked by a terrific dance breakdown midway through.
It’s been a long time since we’ve heard an album so indebted to 80s pop, yet bold enough to take that influence and at least try something new, but Junior Boys have done just that, and have succeeded beautifully. Last Exit, while being one of the year’s most cutting-edge releases, is, most importantly, a warm, friendly, entirely accessible pop album that deserves a much wider audience than just the bloggers and message boarders out there. They were the ones who helped dig this gorgeous record from out of obscurity, but now it’s the general public’s turn to go out and enjoy it for themselves, while the bloggers can go back to mining the darkest depths of cyberspace, seeking out that next great unknown band. Finding an obscure debut album that’s better than Last Exit, however, will turn out to be a very tall order.