February 15, 2004
REASONS TO BE POPTIMISTIC
Received the Junior Boys' 'High Come Down' ep and a preview copy of the LP 'Last Exit', courtesy of electrokin's Nick Kilroy.
And they're a real disappointment...
Just kidding of course. 'Last Exit' is every bit the immaculate masterpiece we've all been expecting. All the hits are here - 'High Come Down', 'Birthday', 'Last Exit' - and I defy you to find another LP that will come out this year that contains so many seductive hooks. There's not one track that won't insinuate its way into your nervous system.
Each Junior Boys' track has the late-night, electric-lit intimacy of an Edward Hopper vignette.
The Jbeez at the moment are masters of what Eppy has called Pop 2. Or almost: for Eppy, Pop 2 tends to run 'at least 10-15 years behind what's actually popular at the time' but, while there can be no doubt that the Junior Boys' return to the eighties synthpop template, no-one could seriously mistake any of the tracks on 'Last Exit' for anything actually produced in the eighties. That's because, for all their debts to synthpop and old skool Timbaland/ 2-step rythmic tricksiness, central to the Junior Boys' sensibility is a taste for a certain strain in MOR. Where MOR at its most asinine and mediocre simply retreats into Pop classicism, disdaining new technology and technology for trad instrumentation, the Junior Boys recall the experimental, electronics-friendly uneasy listening of the likes of Steely Dan, the Blue Nile and Hall and Oates.
So with a fair wind following, there's no reason at all why the Junior Boys shouldn't cross over into Pop 1. It's true that Pop 1 just now is especially hostile to everything the Junior Boys swoon for. The Junior Boys highlight everything that's wrong with Now Pop's ideology of Strength. The dominant hip hop-derived R and B sound has room only for powerful women and tough men. It tends towards the anthemic, the bombastic and the full-on: there's no space for ---- space, for the shivers, whispers, and breaths that are the Junior Boys' stock-in-trade. 'It seems I disappear,' Jeremy sings on 'When I'm Not Around', in what amounts to a declaration of intent. Compare Jeremy's anaemic, blurry vocals to the dull focus of the generic Pop Idol
'strong' voice. Yet why not hope for a change in appetite, why not hope that vulnerability, doubt, languor, even feyness, might find a mass market once again?
Posted by mark at February 15, 2004 05:02 PM
Actually I think there is a big untapped audience for doubt, vulnerability, etc etc. Well I say 'untapped' but it is being tapped by stuff like Gary Jules and Katie Melua - massive hits trading on loneliness, confusion etc, both of which I thought were awful, in GJ's case at least because it seemed so obvious. So I think a record that could marry those feelings to convincing modern sonics might be big. Is the Junior Boys that record? No, I don't think so, even though I like them. Cos another thing I think is that a certain basic vocal competence is now expected by the public - singers who sound like they know what they're doing even if they're technically suspect to people in the know. This may be a cyclical thing or it may be a genuine shift caused by karaoke and Pop Idol (and now karaoke console games which are apparently going to be enormous this year...) So I think the vulnerability will have to be in the content and phrasing not in the 'grain' of the voice.
I see where you're coming from, but it's not as if Jeremy is screamingly out of tune or anything. You're being way harsh in implying that he lacks basic vocal competence. One of the many things to appreciate about the Junior Boys is that they totally deviate from the current Pop Idol model of what a 'Good Voice' is. It's true that, at the moment, the public seem to be buying into that model, but I don't see why that should be a permanent thing. I still think they're suckers for a catchy tune, and the JBeez have _them_ in abundance.
What about Lumidee, Tom? But I agree with Mark, Jeremy is a good singer! In any case, I'm salivating (almost literally) about the new LP...I'll hope they'll be releasing it on CD for us non-purists?
Yeah sorry by 'basic vocal competence' i mean precisely 'in a Pop Idol sense', the ability and will to project like that and put a bit of melismatic fannydangle in if required. I'm not saying Jeremy has a bad voice or that weedy voices are bad - I mean I put a Frazier Chorus MP3 up on my site last week, how could I think that! But I think the taste for 'proper' voices is fairly unshakable.
Actually I think the early-80s was a bit of a one-off blip as far as 'weak' voices being 'allowed' into pop went, and even then there weren't many, most of the big New Pop bands weren't averse to a bellow. David Sylvian, Boy George at a pinch...who else? Probably the most wounded/vulnerable/feeble pop star voices of the 80s belonged to Bros!
I was going to invoke Lumidee, too, Angus! Although, as we agree, I don't think the comparison is particularly helpful in the case of Jeremy because he's not off-key. He wouldn't get past the first round of Pop Idol, but Jeremy _is_ a good singer and one that I think a mass audience could appreciate.
What about Neal Tennant? The Pet Shop Boys: (actually, now I come to think of it, another J-Beez analogue that hadn't previously occurred to me), one of the most successful bands of the eighties, with one of the 'weediest' ever voices. There _must_ be other 'weak' voices that have been highly successful - help out somebody...
Clarification: J's voice is weak, as in bloodless, dreamy, _weakened_ (by desire and doubt), it's not _technically_ weak.
If what you're suggesting about the taste for Pop Idol vox is true, Tom, you'll have me as depressed as you made Matt. I'm still hoping that the vogue for bland emoting and showboating is a passing trend.
Speaking of Pop Idol, Will Young surely sells a lot partly because he can 'do' vulnerable and fey (very well in my opinion).
I can't believe I forgot Neil Tennant! There's hope for all of us if Neil Tennant can be a pop star!
On Will Young, you're right, though, even if he can articulate vulnerability, his voice is also Pop Idol 'strong', albeit far from being as characteressly bland as the PI norm (cf the ghastly Sam and Michelle). (Though, that said, Gareth Gates' voice was also pretty weedy, wasn't it?)