Big Black Coat ALBUM REVIEW

Big Black Coat Score

For a pair that’s been in the public eye for twelve years running, Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus have been remarkably consistent in their sound as Junior Boys. Specializing in sparse synthpop filled with drum machines that harken back to early techno movements, the Canadian producers find themselves continuing to make what has become expected of them on their fifth effort. Scant, spacious synths intertwine together here in just the same fashion as their last record, 2011’s It’s All True. Simply put, it is business as usual. Unfortunately, this is more of a fault than a strength.

For all of the similarities, Junior Boys’ typical songwriting comes through with a notion of retro pastiche not present on the rest of their discography. “Over It” has a chugging bassline lifted straight out of a Kavinsky record, with atmospheric synths enveloping over a breathy vocal melody. A similarly gripping hook can be found on “What You Won’t Do For Love”, which also features some of the most passionate production Junior Boys have accomplished to date. Both tracks stand out immensely for these reasons, and perhaps provide some of the most compelling moments of Junior Boys’ discography yet.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the majority of the album. Like much of their discography, the duo’s sound too often fails to be compelling in too many moments to maintain significant interest throughout, and tracks like “M&P” and “And It’s Forever” lose focus, both in their design and in their listeners. Too often, the grooves on Big Black Coat feel lifeless within the limitations of the dated synths employed, and without the hypnotic repetition these synth sounds have been so often used for within early house music and the like, the record loses much of its staying power. “Baby Don’t Hurt Me” and “C’mon Baby” seem to be affected by this the most, their relatively decent songwriting squandered by stretched-out, poorly executed synthwork. Yet, even on the 7-minute title track, where a surfeit of synths and cut-up vocals bounce against each other with a rapid pace for much of the number, nothing appears to stand out in an interesting light.

Despite this, props have to be handed out to Junior Boys for the consistency shown throughout. Even if it’s ultimately underwhelming at best, this still feels like an experience all its own. The darkened, moody atmosphere throughout the record reeks of a late-night city drive, one where the protagonist ventures alone through the cold, musty streets. Only on Big Black Coat, the sounds often lose footing in their ability to sustain this setting. Instead, the album acts as the musical equivalent of the same protagonist going out on those same cold streets only to run an errand at the local corner store, then come back home and turn on some Netflix before going to bed, ready for his next uneventful day. The lack of dynamics has a mind-numbing effect on repeated listens, save for the record’s two aforementioned saving graces.

But should anything less have been expected? Junior Boys seem to have an interesting reputation as a “love/hate” group, and while it’s ultimately insulting to the band to place them in such categories, it feels necessary. How else can one explain the reputation for their biggest records (2004’s Last Exit and 2006’s So This Is Goodbye, to be exact), which feature mostly the same style of songwriting and production? There are many who adore these records, but there are also many who find them in a much more negative light. If those people are looking for a change in Junior Boys’ style, stay far away from Big Black Coat.

Still, it can be argued that the tracks that do stand out from Big Black Coat offer a sense of hope for further material. After all, the songwriting would be almost masterful if not for the production, and the reverb-heavy backdrop provides an interesting excursion in theory from their usual material. However, in too many places Junior Boys continue putting together productions that call back to their earlier material, and while this might have a better reception amongst diehard fans who’ve long supported the duo, it’s certainly a banal experience for the rest of us.

– Brock S.