A tribute to the Junior Boys and their offspring

By Peter Valelly

Music taste in the age of the Internet is a curious thing. More and more, bands seem like distinct flavors within a shapeless sea of sound from which you pick and choose your favorites. Because of this, few bands can claim to be era-defining. Or, more specifically, bands can only be epochal for individuals, one at a time. Songs and albums seem to apply to discrete parts of your life-feelings, emotions, friends, particular days or seasons or years. We we are in the era of what blogger K-Punk calls “the Oed(i)Pod,” where your iTunes library offers you an escape back into the enclosed personal unit of the womb by turning music-which in other places and times has the ability to be one of the most powerful conduits of social energy known to man-into a set of solipsistic lifestyle choices through which you design your ideal self.

How do we break out of this? One thing that I find helpful is a sort of self-inflicted cultural amnesia, a building of alternative cultural histories. What I mean is that when you listen to a song, you can imagine that it belongs to an entirely different history of sounds and genres than the one that exists. Some music has this mutant cultural history built into it-see, for example, British dubstep artist Burial, whose whole sound is a ghastly revenant version of the London rave continuum, a warped electronica that seeks to reanimate a lost subculture by sonically depicting its death. Other times, however, a band emerges that possesses the schizophrenic quality of seeming totally contemporary while belonging to a bygone era. Sometimes, this disorienting experience can be chalked up to cheesy nostalgia or revivalism. Occasionally, however, it can also be the band’s muse, their stylistic foundation.

This is the case with Hamilton, Canada’s Junior Boys, who debuted their tragically glamorous and rhythmically scrambled electropop on the 2002 single “Birthday.” That track, which wed throbbing synths and yearning vocals redolent of ’80s pop to post-Timbaland drums which spasm and convulse around the song’s steady 4/4 motion. The sound is something like what might have happened if synth-pop, rather than becoming practically synonymous with “dated” music, had continued to gestate and evolve, absorbing tropes and techniques of other emergent genres as it went. The futuristic drive of electropop is suddenly reanimated by the Junior Boys’ contemporary recreation of it.

“Birthday” was followed by two equally brilliant full-lengths. “Last Exit,” the Junior Boys’ 2003 LP, was a rich continuation of what they had begun on “Birthday,” with occasionally frantic drums framing a set of sleek modernist torch songs, with the profound pathos of Jeremy Greenspan’s bruised vocals often taking center stage. The highlight, aside from “Birthday,” was the Samuel R. Delany-referencing “Bellona,” a taut synth reverie whose protagonist whispers cryptically, “When did the city change me?/ Red sky, my eyes closed/ The fire came so slow.” “Teach Me How to Fight,” another superb track, is a triumphant surge of gentle synths wrapped around Greenspan’s most confident vocal performance.

The group’s second LP, “So This Is Goodbye,” stripped away some of the more avant-garde touches of the Junior Boys’ earlier work, but retained Greenspan’s fierce songwriting and cold, clinical electronic sounds. Propelled by the monstrous single “In the Morning” and ravishing tracks like “Double Shadow” and “Like a Child,” the album proved a worthy entry in the JBs’ catalog.

The amnesiac modernism that I’ve placed at the heart of the Junior Boys’ work is not unique to them, and several of their side projects have proven equally as inventive as their standard output. Johnny Dark, who left the group between “Birthday”-for which he did the drum programming-and the release of “Last Exit,” released a thrilling 2005 solo EP, “Can’t Wait.” Across four songs, Dark crossbred his former band’s pop style with 2-step, a post-rave British variant on R&B built on chopped vocals and heavy syncopation. The result is a sort of ecstatic, combustible post-pop that flickers with futuristic potential and galvanizing energy.

2008 has seen two Junior Boys offshoots yield similarly phenomenal results. “Double Night Time” the gorgeous solo debut from Metro Area’s Morgan Geist, sports guest vocals from Johnny Greenspan throughout the whole LP. The album’s meticulous tributes to classic techno, house and electro are so laboriously, lovingly built that they can seem too rigid and mechanical. However, on the ecstatic mindwarp of “Palace Life” and vocal numbers like “Most of All” and “Detroit,” Geist really hits his stride.

Best of all, however, Johnny Dark has returned as half of the duo Stereo Image. The other half, San Serac, gained small solo notoriety as a sort of white hipster ersatz Prince. On Stereo Image’s debut, “S/T,” Serac’s vocals are all hypersexual caricature and detached urbane ennui brought to life by Dark’s fiercely imaginative beats.

The astounding “Red Nights” pairs soaring, sinister bleeps with Serac’s scattered, imagistic lyrics. “No sad-sack DJ’s ever gonna bring us down,” he swoons triumphantly, and the beats clicking and whirring behind him ensure that hardly any spinner out there can keep up with Stereo Image’s futurist brio.

On “Dark Chapter,” a single looped and repitched synth squiggle serves triple-duty as rhythmic engine, renegade melodic agent, and sinister bassline. “Strange Life” serves up Stereo Image’s best and strangest lyrics, as Serac swoons, “We’re driving ’round past words/ with the radio on backwards/ we’re calling out passwords/ with the radio on backwards.” Ballads like “Your Collapsed State” and the schizophrenic “Exposure,” meanwhile, sound like the beautiful last gasps of a self-destructing robot.

With a new Junior Boys album due out in early 2009, we’ll see how far they can extend their constellation of fractured modernist electronic pop. But hopefully the seeds sown by them and their offspring will prove an inspiration for more musicians interested in pointing towards a new sonic future rather than wallowing in our increasingly vacant present, whose cultural tropes are ever more reliant on stretching thin the past.