Junior Boys

Last Exit

(KIN; 2004)

By Amir Nezar | 9 October 2007

If you ask me, synth-pop was born in a cold, steel-walled clinic of hollow-resounding snare and soul-bent eerie synth clatters, a blind, frigid child with heavy fingers on heavy keyboards. It shivered in an impersonal 80’s cell, and since the unsettling days of Power, Lies, Corruption-era New Order, has been proclaimed dead, haltingly revived, then dead again, and ultimately, merely revered as a past icon, sitting still-underdeveloped and waiting, with goose-bumped translucent skin that was dying for clear air, wings, and another chance.

Now, amidst the throng of ringing guitars reaching for the signature U2 bombast, amidst well-dressed vampires wielding bass lines pirated from latter-day New Order and post-punk, it finally emerges almost unnoticed from a cavern smothered in dust: a crystalline angel, its lingering bits of grit falling from its unexpected spreading wings, led by the firm hand of Jeremy Greenspan. The vampires in red shirts, with their groomed hair and fashionable decadence, will continue sipping stored up, but fast-depleting, inspiration sucked from a too-long-depleted reserve. Most will not notice the transformed creature, once a cold promise, now a winged almost-fulfillment. But word is whispered on the rain-slicked somnambulant streets and the small shards of lack in many of us burn with reignited presence, the nuances of imperfect hearts unsatisfied by loud volumes and overdriven guitars. The reawakening is a slight one, but its force palpably undulates through the ventricles as much as it fires off pleasure-sparks in the brain. I say to you, “You’ve heard the new Junior Boys,” and you say to me, “Yes I have,” and half-smiles flit upon our mouth-corners as just the briefest glimpse of the angel retreats into a silvery fog.

The prose is flowery, yes, but the point ought to come through intact: the whizzing-past of fast-fading '80s and late '70s-inspired thieving acts that couldn’t even last their given 15 minutes has become a bit too stylishly in-your-face. The cologne reeks, the pretty faces loom too large with their posed pouting. In this milieu the subtly glorious, heartfelt gem that is Last Exit shimmers through like an improbable breath of fresh air. Full of real, albeit muted feeling, it is an unabashedly pristine album, one both complex and oftentimes, strikingly minimalist.

That’s the draw: by letting its striking shards of melody and rhythm float and play within expansive space, Greenspan creates an album that begs to be explored, full of quiet corners and slowly-emerging, but immense, rewards.

It takes some getting used to; the creative but tinny percussion that opens the album on “More Than Real” is a total divergence from the typically over-trodden paths of dance-punk, glam, and rawk that seem to carry nearly all of music’s current major traffic. But it becomes slowly hypnotic as errant synths form a melodic patchwork through understated interaction. When Greenspan’s vocals arrive, just slightly unstable and full of vague desire, the first wave of bewildered pleasure will have washed over your brain. Strange hooks full of holes and yawning spaces form like wraiths from the deep ether, the universe bends a little bit, and when the track fades out into a weighty silence, your walls adjust. This is what synth pop was meant to be. It’s just taken Junior Boys to organize all of those unrefined ideas of synth pop past to give it wings.

It is indeed a soaring achievement, one seemingly without missteps. Each track is imbued with its own unique, oft-unpredictable percussion, and recognizable, differentiated synths. In each track, varying space is employed to different, but always emotionally powerful, effect. In “Bellona,” it makes for a languid, unhurried trot of a semi-disco lounge-trip, while in “High Come Down,” it’s cut apart and then stretched out by jutting percussion and tripping synths into a rhythmically nervous but vocally smooth track full of hidden anxiety.

Greenspan’s vocals are universally airy and bleed with sex, whether slightly angsty or relaxed. His lyrics, often indecipherable, are always focused around one desire or another, whether failed or anticipated or past. But it’s really the beauty of the vocals themselves that’s worth note, expressing through their sound alone the soulful sentiment that lays between the emerging and retreating synths on the album. At times they counter the synth melodies, and at others, like in “High Come Down,” they hitch a ride on the rolling waves of synth melodies. But unfailingly, they come across appropriate and perfectly fitted to the music they accompany, never abrading, always smoothing the song’s course.

In fact, the only drawback of an album this expertly executed is its smoothness. It’s so clean and sleek that it could play at your favorite designer outlet (isn’t that ironic), and it’d provide you with a different, but no less lounge-y shopping experience. “Neon Rider” is full of comfortable space, but with enough repetition and recognizable patterning of that space it can fade itself out into background music.

Still, the fact that some tracks here work easily as background music is less the fault of the music itself than of the cool, hypnotic atmosphere it creates. Accusations of sameness throughout would be the result of mistaking production cohesion with song-writing similarity. Throughout the album, wherever attention is paid, fascinating and pretty ideas can be unearthed in droves. It’s just that Last Exit doesn’t demand that attention. Nor is it criminal that the album stays within a comfortable but limited stylistic range; it absolutely nails that range even if it doesn’t often push its wings into different skies.

Fundamentally, Last Exit is so profoundly and beautifully different from nearly any other record this year that its dare-I-say-it-unique gorgeousness is enough to satiate any listener who could use some clearness and languidness in his intelligent music diet. Its improbable revival of that neglected promise of the past not only succeeds in a remotely nostalgic sense, but most importantly, creates a sure-footed forward momentum whose effect will surely ripple into new directions and inspire new synth-pop ideas. It’s not loud, it’s not brazen, but the breeze of synth-pop’s newfound wings (read: Last Exit) ought to give everyone goosebumps.