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Review: Junior Boys – It’s All True

Junior Boys, It’s All True (Domino Records 2011)

In a field where careers can last as long as a remix and whole genres are ephemeral, Canadian electropop group Junior Boys have had a surprisingly long career. Starting off with their 2004 masterpiece Last Exit album, Junior Boys have released a string of consistently great albums, and new record It’s All True is not exception.

When I spoke to Junior Boys’ frontman Jeremy Greenspan earlier this year for Billboard magazine, he sounded like a conflicted man–caught between burnout with the industry and revitalisation from recording part of this album in China. While the lyrics of the album certainly reflect this struggle, Greenspan and bandmate Matt Didemus have crafted another set of immaculately written and produced songs.

Opener “Itchy Fingers” sets the scene well, alternating between half time and frenetically sped two step style drums and synth stabs. When we hit the middle eight, traditional Chinese instruments come in, bringing a surprising new flavour to the Junior Boys’ neo-disco sound. The addition works surprisingly well, blending seamlessly into the more orthodox plinky synth sounds. Personally, I hope this unique sound is one the Junior Boys return to again in the future–the time is certainly ripe for Chinese culture cross-overs.

Greenspan has never sounded better than here, his sometimes thin-but-likeable voice gathering new strength and showing his continued development as a modern-day crooner. “Playtime” is the only true ballad, a 6/8 time slow burner that features an effective, almost whispered at times vocal. This subdued style reminds me in some measure of Last Exit’s more mood-based writing, but with trebley synth production that reminds less of that record’s post-Timbaland style than of its two electro-disco follow-ups.

“Truly Happy Ending” on the other hand heads straight for pop hooks with an uplifting ode to the impossibility of happy endings and the inevitability of decay. As much as any of pop’s great stylists, Greenspan deploys the mismatch between happy music and downbeat lyrics with panache. We’re certainly not talking any significant angst, but the lyrics time and again come back to the impossibility of satisfaction.

First single “ep” is a standout, largely beatless but for a high and clap and propelled instead by synths and Greenspan’s voice. The chorus has Greenspan crooning, “I love you so bad and I want to repeat it,” a lovely invocation of compulsion, sexual and otherwise. And album closer “Banana Ripple” is a monster of a song, an 8 minute disco epic. The enigmatic lyrics refer to an amazing story about Howard Hughes, a group of Mormons and Baskin Robbins banana ripple icecream. Long story short: getting what you want isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It is also the closest thing It’s All True has to a dancefloor track, so unsurprisingly it’s been tapped for the second single complete with a nice mix from Kompakt star The Field.

There is one mis-step: “Kick the Can” sounds underdeveloped, a sparse groove in search of a song. This is surprising given the overall careful production, full of subtle flourishes as well as larger hooks. But this is only a minor flaw in an otherwise solid, eminently listenable record.

When I asked Greenspan how he’d like this record to be listened to, he replied that his ideal listener would have a good stereo system, and their focus entirely on the record–a rare thing in this world of shoddy headphones, cross-platform cross-promotion and quickly forgotten mp3s. It’s to the Junior Boys’s credit then, that they’ve crafted an album that truly rewards such careful listening.