Junkie XL: Today

The droll barber-shop video for “Today,” not to mention the equally-strong cut itself, first drew me to Junkie XL's album—and then I remembered that he was the one responsible for the kitschy exhumation of Elvis's “A Little Less Conversation” a few years back (2004's Radio JXL-A Broadcast from the Computer Hell Cabin riffed on the same idea for a full album with the voices of Solomon Burke, Peter Tosh, Chuck D, Dave Gahan, Robert Smith, and others similarly deployed). Maybe it was the cheesy video that tainted it but, even so, the memory immediately got me worried that Today might be filled with equally-deflating moments.

Turns out I was wrong. Spurning the flood of remix commissions which inundated him following the Elvis overhaul, Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg) opted for an album of originals, specifically, a largely credible collection of vocal-based dance and rock tunes. First the bad news: whether one loves or abhors the Memphis legend, no one can dispute the immediately recognizable quality of Elvis's voice. Junkie's singer, newcomer Nathan Mader, is serviceable but nowhere near as expressive. Sure, he hits the right notes but the songs' emotions are conveyed more instrumentally than vocally. With exception of a few propulsive cuts like “I Have Got a Xerox to Copy,” Junkie's album isn't a dance but a song album. Though electronically produced, it's sonically conservative with Holkenborg clearly not intent on dazzling listeners with complex beatsmithing, for example. It's fundamentally a guitar album with the instrument forming the project's central thread.

There's an almost Doors-like quality haunting the eleven-minute opener “Youthful.” More acoustic blues than electronic dance music, the song immediately declares Today is about songs, not beats. Even so, the cut moves from a gallop into dancier and ultimately more epic territory, pairing a yearning vocal line with simple but nonetheless propulsive beats. Some of Today's strongest cuts are instrumentals. The guitar-heavy anthem “Mushroom” calls New Order and U2 to mind, the former audible in the chiming middle section and the latter present in the song's reverberance. Equally effective, lush chords, skyward electronics, and pealing guitars imbue “Such a Tease” with a paradisiacal quality. “Drift Away” and “Yesterdays” not only drink from U2's dreamily emotive well but borrow The Edge's sound too. Ignited by a lashing whip crack, the pulsating “Today” is boosted by an infectious soaring chorus and a New Order guitar riff, making it a natural single choice. It's a peak moment on this satisfying and eclectic collection, one that to its credit leaves any Elvis associations far behind.

May 2006