[12 August 2007]
Look, I’ll be frank: I’m as surprised that Junior Senior put out another album as you are. Way back in the halcyon days of 2003—remember back then? When things weren’t quite so apocalyptically bad?—they burst upon an unsuspecting world full-grown as if from the furrowed brow of Zeus himself. D-D-Don’t Don’t Stop the Beat was the album, and “Move Your Feet” was the song. You probably remember the video, with Commodore 64 graphics and a dancing squirrel. It was infectious, it was irresistible, it was one of the best singles of the decade. It also held the unmistakable stink of the dreaded “one hit wonder”. The chances of Junior Senior ever releasing anything again, let alone anything nearly as earth-shatteringly awesome as “Move Your Feet”, were pretty low, at least inasmuch as I figured at the time.
But here we are, and Junior Senior have not just produced a follow-up to their debut, but a damn good one as well. If the album looks kind of familiar, well, you can be forgiven—Hey Hey My My Yo Yo was actually released way back in 2005. All the Kool Kids on your block probably already downloaded the album two years ago. It didn’t really surprise me that the group got dumped by their US label: if an amateur like me could detect the reek of novelty, then the bigwigs up at Mercury probably felt absolutely no compunction about dropping our Dynamic Duo. (See, there are two of them: Senior, AKA Jeppe Laurson, and Junior, known to his mother as Jesper Mortensen. Senior is only actually about a year and a half older than Junior, in case you’re wondering.) In any event, as much as I am enjoying Hey Hey My My Yo Yo now that I actually have a copy in my hot little hands (not one for illegal downloading am I, nor one for paying pricey import tariffs when the dollar is so damned weak), I can definitely understand why Mercury made the decision.
The way the American music industry works, an act like Junior Senior never had much chance to be anything more than a novelty one-off. There’s just no room for this kind of weirdness on the charts, as worthy as it may be—we’ve got the Gorillaz and Gnarls Barkley and that’s probably more pop weirdness than the House of Representatives is comfortable with. We have to keep our pop airwaves safe for self-serious R&B starlets and gritty thug crooners. So, after holding out for two stark and barren years, those of us who care have finally been rewarded with an American release of their sophomore album.
The album was worth the wait. I was joking a few sentences ago, but there was a grain of truth in the idea that these guys were just not built for lasting success in America. This is the kind of Pop music with a capital “P” that just doesn’t go very far on supposed pop radio these days. I daresay there’s even a hint of the dreaded power pop in Junior Senior’s approach to relentlessly catchy summer music, samplers and breakdancing notwithstanding. If there’s one thing that is almost certain to fall dead on American airwaves, it’s classical pop music. The electronic elements that brought their first album comparisons to Fatboy Slim (although old Norm hasn’t produced a song as good as “Move Your Feet” in a long time, it must be said) have been slightly downplayed in favor of a more traditionally pop sound.
This is not to say that the samplers are totally gone: the album opens with “Hip Hop a Lula”, actually one of the weaker tracks here, built on the chassis of a classic roller-skating jam (even down to brief stabs of disco strings). But as soon as the album rolls into “Can I Get Get Get”, things get really good. Neither Junior nor Senior are particularly good vocalists, it must be said (although they are good at singing the type of songs they sing, if that makes any sense). Their decision to bring in a number of guests really helps the album, in terms of opening up the musical palette. “Can I Get Get Get” features a lead vocal from Le Tigre’s JD Samson, as well as backing vocals from the Velvelettes. Kate Pierson and Cindy WIlson of the B-52s shows up for the next track, “Take My Time”, which is as classic a mid-tempo pop ballad as you are likely to hear for at least another week or so (when the next New Pornographers album drops).
Pierson and Wilson’s guest spot is quite revealing, actually. Once you get past the novelty aspects of Junior Senior’s appeal, their surprising continued relevance reminds the listener of nothing so much as the B-52s—sure, a novelty act in the classic sense of the world, but one that is very seriously committed to using the novel aspects of pop music to build a lasting career. Whether or not we’ll still be dancing to Junior Senior in 20 years like we still dance to “Rock Lobster” is certainly something that only time will tell, but I’d argue that the group have already written a handful of tracks that could easily assure them immortality in the nerd party rock hall of fame. One of these tracks is “Dance Chance Romance”, featuring a guest appearance by Le Tigre’s Kathleen Hanna (all three members of Le Tigre appear throughout the album). Again, this is not really a song that either Junior or Senior would be able to sing, at least not as well—they don’t have the emotional range, for lack of a better term, to conjure up the same type of winning innocence that Hanna brings.
And it is definitely to their credit that the duo recognize and play to their strengths. Pure party music gets old after a while. Even dance music needs variation or it gets stale real quick: Junior Senior could easily have fallen off the face of history if they’d simply tried to replicate the success of their first album and come up stiff. There are a few bits of filler throughout that recall the more forgettable moments of their debut—“Happy Rap”, for instance, is pretty much exactly what you might expect from the title. But when they try they’re actually pretty decent songwriters, and they’re smart enough to surround themselves with musicians who can compliment their sound without dominating the record. Tracks like “No No No”, with a retro-rock vibe reminiscent the OG girl-group sound of the early ‘60s, remind me of the Pipettes, another modern pop act finding success with a sharp modern take on archaic forms. But like the Pipettes, I don’t expect to see Junior Senior racing up the pop charts anytime soon. It’s probably for the best. As strange as it may seem, classical pop music has become something of an ascetic discipline, of limited appeal to all but the most devoted. Under this formulation, Junior Senior are practically fakirs.