Review: Junior Boys Are Smoldering With Lust Beneath Their ‘Big Black Coat’

Review: Junior Boys Are Smoldering With Lust Beneath Their ‘Big Black Coat’

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Junior Boys — the Canadian duo of Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus — rose to prominence in the mid-’00s on a then-unheard of proposition: soul music for indie loners. Their minimal brand of laptop-tinged R&B (or funk-inflected synth-pop, depending on how you mentally framed it) was intimate, sure, but it wasn’t made to soundtrack intimate moments, at least not in the Aziz Ansari sense. They set the blueprint for PBR&B before PBR was even totally a thing, clearing the way for the blue-hearted soul of How to Dress Well in 2010, Autre ne Veut in 2013, and even Porches earlier this year. It was music that was too desolate in its arrangements to suggest union, too distant in its melodies to denote urgency, too shy and wounded in its lyrics to convey romance. The duo’s 2004 debut album, Last Exit, may have been serviceable accompaniment to a candlelit dinner, but it was definitely perfect music for eating sink-defrosted hot dogs by yourself. It was more sympathetic than sensual.

Over the decade-plus since Last Exit, though, Junior Boys’ blood has warmed a little. “In the Morning,” highlight of their 2006 sophomore album So This Is Goodbye, electrified with screeching synths and grunted backing vocals, and a beat that slammed rather than soothed. It seemed like an experiment (or maybe just a fluke) at the time, but the singles off of the pair’s next two albums — “Hazel” from 2009’s Begone Dull Care, and “Banana Ripple” from 2011’s It’s All True — further upped the ante, edging Greenspan and Didemus further and further towards the dance floor, the latter a nine-minute odyssey building to a falsetto’d disco climax. It’s All True marked skittering electro-pop becoming the new norm for the JBs, with the group’s formerly open-air production and understated vocals smothered by the stilted funking.

With five years passed before fifth album Big Black Coat — and Greenspan saying in interviews that the new album is informed by walks around his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, and the imagined experiences of the wayward night owls he encounters — you might imagine the album to be Junior Boys’ return to solitary confinement. And the album’s sense of yearning is more profound than it has been since the duo’s first two records, while the production again has the cold-weather sort of hush to its melancholy that made their early work so transfixing. But they seem less interested than ever in helping you find comfort in solitude: This is music for folks interested in doing something about their loneliness, like, tonight.

From opening track “You Say That,” it’s clear that Big Black Coat is gonna be the first Junior Boys album where the music’s as restless as the lyrics. Kaskade-like synths creep with a menacing intrigue over a beat that rides its hi-hat to near-untenable tension, while Greenspan sings with uncharacteristic insistence, “I’ve been waiting every single day / But you don’t know.” The warped two-step of “Over It” is even more manic, its woozy synth-pop bringing to mind Ariel Pink producing the Human League, with a chorus of unusual disquietude for Junior Boys: “The night is gone / But you’re afraid to go home.” The record’s highpoint might actually be the cover of Bobby Caldwell’s well-traveled “What You Won’t Do for Love,” a song that once seemed impossible to still find new crevices in. But the JBs turn it into a stomping post-disco monster, its cries of “I got a thing for you, and I can’t let go” now absolutely smoldering with lust under the percolating keys.

It’s a little unreal to hear a group once defined by their sonic chasteness now burning with sexual desperation, and it doesn’t always work. Ironically, the sparsest numbers are now the group’s least convincing: mews of “When I kiss you / I’m on fire” on “No One’s Business” aim for whispered passion but end up sounding strangely uncommitted, while the two minutes of washed-out smooth soul on “Baby Don’t Hurt Me” feels like a Tame Impala castoff Rihanna would never cover. Big Black Coat works best when the music is as committed to frenzied, all-consuming libidinousness as the lyrics, and on those grounds, it’s a surprisingly successful reinvention for the duo: one that feels more in line than recent efforts with the strengths (if not the tones) of their earliest material. The sad boys behind the solo emoting and idle rhythms of Last Exit were capable of getting busy all along.

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