Junior Boys: Last Exit

Hamilton, Ontario, has until now boasted Daniel Lanois as its most famous export but Canada 's ‘Steeltown' may find itself in the spotlight once again with the release of the Junior Boys' Last Exit. Jeremy Greenspan and Johnny Dark formed the group there in 1999 and, after some protracted delays, released the 2003 EP Birthday to strong acclaim. Not only did it establish the group's lush electropop sound but it raised the Boys' profile further with the inclusion of a Fennesz remix. Much of that EP reappears on Last Exit which finds Greenspan, Dark, and Matt Didemus spreading their distinctive style across ten tracks. The group's beguiling, experimental synth-pop is an unusual amalgam of disparate elements: fragile, wistful vocals (courtesy of lead vocalist and principal songwriter Greenspan), Timbaland-styled beats, and reverberant dub production treatments. Instrumentally, echoes of Human League and Depeche Mode surface while, vocally, Greenspan's soft, sensual style recalls a less affected David Sylvian. The opener “More Than Real” immediately establishes the Junior Boys template by merging funk drum programming with burbling synth squiggles. “Under the Sun” and “Three Words” are dreamier pieces suffused with ambient auras, while the ‘80s electropop style of ‘Birthday' pairs hushed vocals and lovelorn lyrics with glistening synths. The minimal techno opening of “Bellona” suggests a Kompakt influence but the song turns soulful as Greenspan's vocal moves from a lower register in the verse to a higher one in the euphoric chorus. The best tracks are “Last Exit,” whose spacious arrangement features whispered vocals, an inventive stop-start funk beat, and dubby echo patterns, and the soaring electropop of “Teach Me How To Fight” with its buoyant vocal chorus. As satisfying as Last Exit is, one thing in particular would make it better. The sax flutter on “When I'm Not Around” suggests that the group's sound would be enriched by other instruments beyond the drum programming and electronics that dominate. Imagine how the supple warmth of an acoustic bass would deepen the tracks, for instance, or how horns might complement Greenspan's delicate vocal style. That's a modest criticism, however, of an otherwise refreshing release. It's a largely successful re-imagining of 'plastic soul,' the term Bowie infamously coined to describe his Young Americans style.

June 2004