Although the majority of Canadians live in urban areas, mostly close to the American border, as heavily populated as their cities may seem, they remain dwarfed by the thousands upon thousands of square miles of pure, uninhabited nothingness to the north. And in most cases, all it takes is a short drive to get to, quite literally, the middle of nowhere. Traveling from province to province, you’re hit with a whole lotta nothing; the sheer size of the country is overwhelming, and that sense of remoteness has lent itself well to Canadian music over the years, be it Neil Young’s “Helpless”, the Tragically Hip’s “At the Hundredth Meridian”, or Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds”. Hamilton, Ontario indie darlings Junior Boys seem like the last band to be considered an act that reflects that uniquely Canadian sensibility, but perhaps it’s time for an audience substantially larger than the pockets of savvy hipsters scattered across the nation to take notice and appreciate just how distinct a sound the duo has created over the course of two superb albums, one that skillfully echoes the spaciousness, the isolation, and the aw-shucks humility of their country.
As Junior Boys’ 2004 minimalist tour de force Last Exit showed, the atmosphere crafted by Jeremy Greenspan and Matthew Didemus might seem icy at first, but for all the skeletally bare arrangements, there was an undeniable pulse that drove such memorable tunes as “Birthday”, More Than Real”, and “Under the Sun”, as house rhythms commingled with electro tweaks, two-step inspired stutters, and Greenspan’s fragile tenor voice, and while the differences on the hotly anticipated follow-up So This is Goodbye are subtle, the amount of growth between the two records is significant.
A sly microhouse influence creeps into the opening track “Double Shadow”, the clapping beats and ebullient synth hook underscored by a chilly, ominous synth line that hints at impending doom on the horizon. The lively “The Equalizer” is a good example of Greenspan’s improving vocal skill, as he brings some charismatic, blue-eyed soul to the percolating arrangement, while “Count Souvenirs” takes the stately melodies of Last Exit and darkens the mood considerably, thanks in large part to Greenspan’s Morrisey-esque attention to detail, which quickly degenerates from nostalgia to frightening obsessiveness: “Your favorite shirt / A little dirt / Builds inside the bedroom drawer / Cause all the paint and all the stains / All the papers and the fumes / They’re all of you… So please, lease don’t touch.”
Wonderfully arranged synth arpeggios dominate the record, juxtaposed against a near-blank musical backdrop, as the sharp beats of Last Exit (often credited to erstwhile band member Johnny Dark) replaced by warmer rhythms, and the combination creates a glimmer of hope on a song as overtly melancholy as the title track, which, for all of Greenspan’s moping, moves along at a somber, yet surprisingly crisp pace. Especially clever is the cover of the 1961 Frank Sinatra nugget “When No One Cares”, which transforms the brooding classic into a hopelessly bleak cry for help, the ambient chords flickering like a wind-blown match in the dark. If you’re looking for pure pop perfection, though, you need not look any further than the sublime “In the Morning”, which begins with another arpeggiated synth launching into a massive drum beat backed up by rhythmic gasps, guitar accents, and layers of keyboards that nearly drown out Greenspan’s lead vocals. By the time the brilliant synth hook kicks in three minutes in (the best wet-finger-on-glass synth squeak since Delays’ “Lost in a Melody”) we’re completely taken by the song and its massive groove. One of the best singles of the year, it begs to be performed for at least five more minutes. Or at least repeated on the iPod.
While Junior Boys have grown to become quite a compelling live act, with Didemus handling synths and sequencers and Greenspan adding depth to the sound with guitar and bass (they’ve since taken on a drummer), those hoping for a similarly rich-sounding record will be surprised. If anything, with the exception of “In the Morning”, So This is Goodbye is even more measured and meticulous than Last Exit, but so skilled a songwriting team Greenspan and Didemus have become, that every carefully-planned note packs a wallop, the starkness continuing to masterfully mask some of the most soulful Canadian music to come out in years. If this keeps up, the Junior Boys’ “indie darling” tag could very well be replaced by the much more deserving title, “national treasure”.