Built into the western marshes on the coast of what would become Sweden, Gothenburg reflects the Dutch urban sensibilities found in other 17th century metropolises like Amsterdam and Jakarta having been built by one of the world’s great trade-minded empires of the time. Canals scatter the city’s regions, the marshlands manipulated adeptly by the Dutch to allow for the springtime sunshine to drench higher land providing for the perfect kind of port city. As Sweden’s only seafaring gateway to the Atlantic, enriched by the international imperialism and mercantilism prevalent in the hundred years after Gothenburg’s foundation was laid, the city has a rich and diverse population which has room to breathe and sources of inspiration of all sorts afforded to the populace by the city’s wealth over the centuries. Miles and miles of parks and nature preserves throughout the metropolitan area are a treat during the warm months. With some of the largest public events and festivals for art, music, and science in all of Scandinavia, Gothenburg on a sunny day seems to be the kind of place that at once encourages personal reflection and progressivism.
One can imagine people of a pensive manner walking through the crisp air in months of springtime, surrounded by Gothenburg’s pragmatic and functional architecture, form following function. Mustn’t structure have a design formatted for purpose? Mustn’t purpose always be the heart of the matter? What about art? Never mind frills and egregious ornamentation. No shtick, just strong craft. Gothenburg is home to bands of all varieties have become international sensations for their ideals of upholding the integrity of well-crafted art: The Knife, Jens Lekman and Little Dragon to name a few have become huge players in the indie scene the world over. Born of the intelligently designed canal city with its practical urban designs, functional architecture, and miles of easy-going light-rail, Junip have crafted their sophomore album, the practically entitled Junip (Mute, 2013). This on-again, off-again trio consisting of Jose Gonzalez, Elias Araya, and Tobias Winterkorn became internationally known for their consistently rich and mellow vocals with spacious textures on keys and subdued drumming that puts the music right at that sweet spot between propulsive energy and introspective meditation. In a live setting, the full effect of their expansive folk-rock timbre comes to fruition for any attendee and the band went to great lengths to transcribe the depth and integrity of their live performances into their sophomore effort. Junip successfully continues in the footsteps of the 2010 breakthrough Fields with trance infused folk-rock that sits nicely in either the background or the forefront and absolutely never overstays its welcome.
Junip’s “Line of Fire”
The record arrives with a knowing delivery and a soothing, no frills, sense of gravity and combustion. The opening standout track “Line of Fire” hits with synth bass flutes and Gonzalez’s familiar nylon string classical guitar underlying one of Gonzalez’s most potent lyrical effort yet. With as much energy as any track the band has ever put out, a draconian sense of inevitability is overcome by Gonzalez’s encouragement: “No one else around you / No one to understand you / No one to hear your calls / Look through all your dark corners when you’re backed up against the wall / Step back from the line of fire.” This sets a musical and lyrical precedent for the rest of the album in which Gonzalez persistently utilizes simple lyricism to paint a sense of accessibility to those he sings for. Every track will touch on the need for inner strength to overcome a sense of isolation and uncertainty, his words buttressed by incredibly warm folky nylon-string and enriched by the depth of Winterkorn’s synth overtones. The album unfolds gradually but doesn’t change the formula much from beginning to end, and honestly plays like the logical extension of 2010’s Fields. The lyrics, though pedestrian, are markedly simplified on purpose from Fields to reduce the clutter and sense of wasted effort: Gonzalez, when interviewed, notes that there are lyrical moments on Fields that served to reduce the clarity and gestalt of the songs, and continues further to state “I decided when I was writing the lyrics to use less complicated words and […] focus more on stuff that sounds personal.” (Frankie, 2013)
If the lyrics, though uplifting and personal, are often less engaging than intended, the musicality of this band surges to the forefront. If Nick Drake and Radiohead met in a bar, talked about what gives music a sense of space and permanence, they’d have hatched the idea for Junip. The guitar playing is deft and melodic, the drumming heavy on rim hits and subdued snare, the synth exquisite and grand. The songs move with vigor, but the playing is decidedly soft as necessary to impart a sense of musical wisdom. Chord changes are spot on, vocal melodies are easy-going but fresh. Gonzalez’s voice, harmonized with itself on every track, is so absolutely characteristic there’s no other way to say it. Warm and cold at the same time, it moves gracefully and with a languid cadence. It compels the listener to pay close attention, and before you know it the synth has caught up to the guitar and supersedes it for heavy crescendoes and hand-clenching gravity. To attain a folk-rock sound as powerful as this is extremely difficult, attainable only by capable hands and attentive minds.
Unfortunately, even capable hands and attentive minds can sometimes take missteps. The organ line in the second track “So Clear” is bullish and generally objectionable over Gonzalez’s excellent guitar part. The fifth track “Villain” is filler, plain and simple. The eighth track, “Baton” has excellent chords and an interesting whistle melody but vocally comes off as flat and lacking dynamics. Ultimately, though, these tracks do not lessen the affecting moments from the strength of “Line of Fire,” the hand-drum infused drone of “Walking Lightly,” and the superbly textured sludged synth line in the trancey “Head First.” This album is, frankly, quite excellent. It is pensive, rich, well contained, vibrantly produced, and purposeful.
Like the capable hands and discerning craftsmen that raised Gothenburg from the marshes, Junip has put out a sophomore album showcasing their sense of integrity and emotive functionalist music. Notwithstanding a couple filler tracks to buffer the album’s length, the band’s tastes succeed in producing a riveting listen. Gonzalez’s place as a contemporary “milestone” singer-songwriter is assured by now and, when Junip’s prowess as an enthralling live act becomes more universally known, Winterkorn and Araya’s reputations will be solidified for their contemporary interpretation of pastoral folk and canonical rock music.
Written by Case Newsom
OurVinyl | Senior Writer
JUNIP NORTH AMERICAN TOUR DATES:
5/30 – Troubadour – Los Angeles, CA
5/31 – Rio Theatre – Santa Cruz, CA
6/1 – Bimbos – San Francisco, CA
6/2 – Doug Fir Lounge – Portland, OR
6/4 – Rio Theatre – Vancouver, BC
6/5 – Neumos – Seattle, WA
6/8 – Cedar Cultural Center – Minneapolis, MN
6/9 – Lincoln Hall – Chicago, IL
6/10 – Great Hall –Toronto, ON
6/12 – Brighton Music Hall – Boston, MA
6/13 – Highline Ballroom – New York, NY
6/15 – 9:30 Club – Washington DC
6/16 – Union Transfer – Philadelphia, PA