When a band undergoes personnel changes, rarely does it stay the same. A peripheral but integral member departs over creative differences (guitarist Dante Decaro’s move from Hot Hot Heat to Wolf Parade); the star leaves, causing a pursuit of lost glory (David Byrne vs. the Talking Heads) or a change of direction for the worse (Genesis) or the better (Joy Division/New Order); or the accomplice goes, as with electronic innovators M83 and Junior Boys.
Unlike Anthony Gonzalez, who seemed to discover drums, particularly live ones, on Before the Dawn Heals Us, the loss of Johnny Dark has rendered Jamie Greenspan’s Junior Boys almost a different band. Without the rhythmic web of glacial drumming that typified 2004’s Last Exit, So This Is Goodbye sounds more traditional in its pop-house ambitions, though the primacy of Greenspan’s computerized tinkering and nervous vocals show what a talented musician he has become.
On the Junior Boys’ Web site, a bio-cum-manifesto praises Timbaland and two-step as inspiration before cutting them down for losing the plot to the mainstream and grime, respectively. And yet an equal criticism could be leveled at Greenspan for changing course from a fragilely distinct sound to one that is brilliantly familiar. The beauty, after all, of Last Exit, at least in hindsight, seems to lie with Darko’s uncanny ability to transform his spare, sparse beats into a crackling rhythm and an ethereal melody at the same time.
The new Junior Boys does maintain a semblance of Darko’s beat patterns — no doubt Greenspan was involved in their construction — but where the electronics teased at the beat on Last Exit, they now pore over the 808 like rich syrup. This at times affects a reversal on So This Is Goodbye, where the atmospherics now become the beats (instead of the rhythm playing the melody) as on standout “Like a Child.” And “In the Morning” offers the delicious squelch of a synth-organ to become a dominant hook, an arresting maneuver unimaginable on Last Exit.
The title track takes this effect one step further by dipping the intermittent keys matching Greenspan’s voice into the cresting beat, a nod to Timbaland’s work on Jay-Z‘s “Big Pimpin’.” The feel becomes far more playful: all the heat from Greenspan’s computers has melted the chilly beats of Last Exit, turning them into a campfire that offers refuge from the cold machinations of modern society.
If the sound comes off as regressive, that may be its intent, as Greenspan expresses an interest in MOR (that’s “middle of the road”) ’70s pop. Nowhere is this more obvious than on his cover of Frank Sinatra’s “When No One Cares.” Listening to the 1959 original, it quickly becomes apparent that in his fluid synthesizers Greenspan has captured the human emotion so normally tied to swelling strings. Making beats sound cold on Last Exit suddenly seems easy in the face of making them darkly human, as is the case on So This Is Goodbye.
Greenspan also nails Old Blue Eye’s singing dead-on, and while he may lack Sinatra’s range, this number shows how far his singing has come and why it has now replaced the beats at the top of the mix. Greenspan still exercises the same soulful pluck as before, but he is more controlled, as on closer “FM.” Here, he traverses registers high and low that he lacked either the skill or confidence to hit in the past. When the glitch of a computer takes over his voice near the track’s end, it seems a shame, until he repeats the ooh‘s of the chorus, once again unmodulated and breathtaking as ever.
When a band, even a great one, becomes epitomized by one member or sound or gimmick, the loss of that element can prove devastating. So This Is Goodbye displays an impressive maturation on the part of Junior Boys leading man Jamie Greenspan, replacing two nervous prodigies with a lonely virtuoso. When all comparisons point backward, it can be hard to appreciate what has been achieved, which does a great disservice to Greenspan. Lest we forget, Ian Curtis barely filled the Factory while Bernard Sumnar sold out stadiums.
“So This Is Goodbye” stream
“In the Morning” stream
“The Equalizer” stream