Live: The Junior Boys Finally Make Sense
This movie has nothing to do with the Junior Boys, but fuck it
Junior Boys + Ensemble
September 7, 2006
At the Bowery Ballroom last night, I ran into Ian Bennett, a friend from college who I hadn't seen in a couple of years; he was raving about how the Junior Boys are now his favorite band. This morning, I got a text message from him: "U should probably give the jboys a bad writeup. They stuck in their tape and hit play." Ian's basically right about the tape thing; Jeremy Greenspan's guitar is more stage prop than anything else. Greenspan switched back and forth between guitar and bass last night, but it's not like he really needed to do either; virtually all the music came from the giant bank of electronics that Matt Didemus spent the evening hiding behind. When Greenspan wasn't playing bass, bass noises were still being made. And when he was playing guitar, he didn't even try to look busy; he'd use it for the occasional glistening swoop of noise and then let it hang unnoticed the rest of the time. They had a drummer, too, but he was just playing drum-machine disco beats: all thumps, no fills, and he even used those metronome headphones to keep time. On one level, it's hard to see why they even bothered with the pretense of actual instruments. On the group's two albums, the only obviously organic element is Greenspan's wounded deadpan coo; all the other sounds are either electronic or they're from instruments that've been made to sound electronic. On that level, it doesn't make much sense for them to trouble themselves with live performances; they are plainly not a band in the traditional sense of the word, and there's really no reason for them to pretend to be one.
But on another level, it totally does. The Junior Boys' thing is basically fragile New Order swish-pulse: pretty, reserved synthpop that simmers more than it soars. For the last couple of years, critics with longer attention spans than mine have fallen all over the group's glassy romanticism and textural complexity. And the contrast between the blinking-light beats and Greenspan's warm monotone really does make for some great early-afternoon driving music. But I've never managed to fall in love with their records, and it hasn't been for lack of trying. After a few minutes, all those crisp, precise keyboard lines and barely-there drums and sad-puppy laments tend to fade into the background. Maybe I just haven't been playing those records loud enough, or maybe I needed that extra drum thwack to hear the forward momentum behind the icy grandeur. The drummer never fleshed out the songs; that wasn't his job. But he did give the songs some serious snap, and that was all they needed to keep them from trailing off. All of a sudden, this stuff sounded like dance music, which maybe it always was. Those songs have a real economic precision, but there's something irresistibly luxurious about the way they slowly unfold, evolving but not really building. And Greenspan and Didemus certainly dressed like disco soldiers. I'd never even seen a picture of the two, and I figured they'd look the way they sound: pasty and awkward and barely there. But no: Greenspan is a big dude, and they both have beards; they could've been mechanics if not for their immaculately white suits and Didemus's popped collar. They're actual humans, not walking stereotypes, and there's something disarming about that.
Voice review: Jess Harvell on the Junior Boys' Birthday/Last Exit and High Come Down
Another good thing about the Junior Boys: they have hooks, which is more than I can say of un-Googleable openers Ensemble. Thinking back, I can only think of one halfway-decent opening band I've ever seen at the Bowery Ballroom, and that band, Buried Inside, was the first band on a four-band bill. In my experience, the band that plays before the headliner at that venue always manages to sound like complete ass; I have no idea why. Anyway, Ensemble is a guitars-vocals-drums three-piece from Montreal, and they play the sort of shoegazer-laptop stuff that always ends up sounding like an undifferentiated soup of pretty noises that add up together to exactly nothing. This is the sort of thing where someone will hold down a single keyboard key over the course of an entire song, and I have zero patience for it. It's unclear why Ensemble even has a drummer, since he totally just sits and does nothing most of the time; the band's songs aren't even remotely rhythmic. The guitarist mostly let his instrument feed back. The singer was really pretty. There's no reason for this band to exist.