Music

Junior Boys: Big Black Coat

First album in five years from the Canadian synth-poppers... now even synth-poppier.


Junior Boys

Big Black Coat

Label: City Slang
Release Date: 2016-02-05
Amazon
iTunes

A half-decade has passed since the last Junior Boys album, It’s All True (2011). During that time, the band’s Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus engaged in side projects, production work, basically the things members of veteran bands busy themselves with during long breaks between albums. Also during that time, the kind of ‘80s-influenced indie synth-pop Junior Boys make has become even more popular and even more mainstream.

While Junior Boys could have taken this development as a cue to take a hard left turn into something a bit more edgy, a bit less expected, and a bit less ‘80s-influenced synth-pop, they have not. Instead, they apparently have taken it as verification that the time has never been better to be Junior Boys. As such, they have made the most Junior Boys album possible.

Of course, the thinking was probably not so deliberate. Greenspan has said the sound of Big Black Coat was inspired by the sound and feel of the fabric of a coat he purchased. Judging by the sound of things, this is a coat you would wear out dancing, to a posh, cosmopolitan club. It’s not exactly warm, but warmth is not the point. Comfort is, and Big Black Coat has something of a familiar, vintage feel.

Over the course of 12 years and half a dozen albums, the more indie-leaning vestiges of Junior Boys’ music have gradually been sheared off. Namely, the use of guitars, a general tension and uneasiness, and tentative, less-than-polished singing. On Big Black Coat, there are not many guitars to speak of. Greenspan’s singing has become more soulful, which in turn makes the songs themselves sound more soulful.

But is there a beating heart beneath that soul? It is difficult to tell. All the songs on Big Black Coat sound like love songs, all eleven of them. The titles imply one sentiment or another. “Over It”, “Baby Give Up On It”, “Baby Don’t Hurt Me”, “Love Is a Fire”. But using “baby” in a song title can seem like a cheap way to buy some sentiment, especially when it’s difficult to figure out whether anything is really at stake.

No, it’s best just to let Junior Boys’ disco machine do its thing and not think too much about it. Because the machine is a pretty powerful one. Greenspan and Didemus get it fired up until it’s generating all kinds of bleeps, blurps, flutters, and ticks with the greatest precision. Then, from that finely-calibrated center it shoots out sharp, piercing synth chords and stabs and, occasionally, hooks. Sometimes, as on “Over It” and “No One’s Business”, the whole thing seems to be running on “automatic” mode and the song sneaks by without really catching your attention. But “M &P” and “Love Is a Fire” might give you synth-whiplash if you’re not careful. More importantly, “C’Mon Baby” conjures up some desperation in the form of a sky-scraping, navel-gazing synth coda.

As for Junior Boys’ straight-up cover of Bobby Caldwell’s ‘70s soft-rock schmaltzfest “What You Won’t Do For Love”, well, a single blipping sequencer would have hipped that song up by a factor of ten. Junior boys add at least five blipping sequencers, for a net hipness of exponential proportions. But they still can’t achieve the Pet Shop Boys’ magic of making a cover seem horribly campy and brilliantly arch at the same time.

And this raises a larger question about Big Black Coat as a whole. Do Junior Boys want to be Pet Shop Boys? Kind of sounds like it. They’re halfway there, too. They just need to work on sharpening up that Canadian wit and maybe using “baby” a bit more ironically.

6
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2018 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.