Over the past decade I have become increasingly predisposed to the possibility of enjoying synthesised pop music. Throughout my twenties I hung on to Neil Young’s somewhat derisive line from his 1992 song Natural Beauty, ‘an anonymous wall of digital sound’ and made most of my music purchases accordingly – guitars, bass and drums will do thank you very much. I would occasionally dabble in an Underworld or Sabres or DJ Food release but nothing really grabbed me. I guess I have The Postal Service’s Give Up album to thank for my change of heart; an album that at first set my teeth on edge but gradually became a firm favourite despite Ben Gibbard’s undeniably insipid singing voice and the decidedly adolescent nature of the lyrics. If I have any guilty pleasures in my record collection (according to Rob there is no such thing but then I reckon there is not much Catholic blood chugging through his veins), Give Up would surely be towards the top of the list. Whatever, it opened up a genre of music that I would probably have otherwise dismissed and I now look forwards to the latest offerings from, say, Hot Chip or Metronomy as much as any other band. So whilst my original choice of debut album was discarded on account of the recent glut of post-punk at the club, I was just as excited by the prospect of playing Junior Boy’s first record: Last Exit.
Last Exit is a curious album. If it qualifies as pop it’s only just. Atmospheric definitely and not necessarily easy to comes to terms with. On face value it can seem at times to be ridiculously simplistic but this is a red herring. The complexity is there but as it is shrouded in minimal bleeps and blips, skittering drum patterns and barely there vocals it may take the casual listener a while to recognise. This is a record to play loud and listen to carefully. It works as background music too, but the payoff is greatly reduced.
So what sets it apart from the myriad other ‘blip pop’ albums around? Well, for me it’s the space, the emptiness, the way that notes and beats seem to coexist on this album without much sense of what each other are doing so that, suddenly (and invariably immediately prior to full alignment) they drop out of the song altogether a bit like with the planets where the constituent parts chance upon an instantaneous moment of cohesion every so often. It’s all just maths after all! But that’s not to say that Last Exit feels in any way random or willfully difficult. This is a meticulously constructed album with subtle melodies (especially on album highpoints Teach Me How to Fight and Birthday), gentle grooves (see Bellona and Under the Sun) and consistently effective song-writing.
Maybe Neil Young was (partly) right at the time he wrote the lyrics for Natural Beauty. But had he been able to to transport himself twelve years into the future he might have discovered an album of digital music that blew his theory out of the water – an anonymous wall Last Exit most certainly is not.
Nick listened: A lot of (seemingly intelligent) people said a lot of very, very crazy, hyperbolic, rabidly excitational things about Last Exit around its release in 2004. “Junior Boys have done no less than singlehandedly re-imagined a future for white pop,” started one review from an online music magazine (a very good online music magazine at that!). At the time I was a little bemused; I’d seen their name talked about in whispered reverence online for a few months as early EPs and singles crept out, remixes by the likes of Fennesz and Manitoba (now known as Caribou), and I’d listened to Junior Boys expecting great… nay, ASTONISHING things. Nothing less than a future for white pop, perhaps. And what I got was… minimal to the point of vapidity, shy to the point of solipsism, so empty and desiccated and cold and uncommunicative that it seemed like the opposite of pop, rather than a reinvention thereof. Which isn’t to say that it was bad – just not at all what I thought I was being sold by the discourse.
Eight years on, I still find Junior Boys, and Last Exit in particular, much easier to theorise than to love, much easier to talk about than singalong with. There are some great, subdued melodies here, doubtless (Birthday, High Come Down), and some delicious grooves (Under The Sun), plus moments of vatic beauty, but were there really tunes, hooks, choruses, actual pop thrills? I wasn’t sure.
I was delighted that Tom faced his electronic trepidations and chose this record, and was able to play the vinyl, after I was so used to MP3s and then a CD; the warmth and hum of vinyl, which normally feels like a veil over details and excitement to me, helped Last Exit make more sense to me, made it more human. If my CDs weren’t packed up ready for moving, I’d have dug it out as soon as I got home so I could listen to it again. An intriguing record, but still, for me, hard to truly love.
Rob listened: First things first, that’s a truly Catholic attitude to guilt Tom! Confess your most minor discretions and hope the biggies go unnoticed. If your idea of a guilty pleasure is the Postal Service, then you need to get out and start sinning much more heavily.
I really enjoyed ‘Last Exit’ and have listened to it a couple of times since. It’s unwinding a little more each time. Having neither a time machine or a crystal ball, I can’t comment on the extent to which it may or may not have opened up the future of electronic pop music, but its corners and curves seem to me to have been passed down through the bloodline, perhaps smoothed by evolution, and can be seen beneath the skin of The XX, about whom similar claims continue to be made.
Graham listened: Having been ‘largin it’ (well in the kitchen anyway) to some of the Olympic opening ceremony dance tracks the night before, tonight would surely be an epiphany in my journey towards appreciation of modern electronica/dance? Nope. In parliamentary terms I refer the other honorable members to the answer I gave in Round 32 about Four Tet.