jj jj nº 3

[Secretly Canadian; 2010]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: electronica, indie, pop, R&B
Others: Lil Wayne, The Tough Alliance, Abe Vigoda

In music, there’s something romantic about being faceless, something easy to love about a sound you can’t attach to a portrait. The cloak of mystery allows an artist to do what she does best: use the materials of art to evoke senses, memories, or moods in her listeners, without having to weather a hailstorm of premature and uninformed judgments. Unfortunately, like the haze of infatuation in a love affair, mystery is difficult to sustain; most artists who first appeared out of nowhere end up exposing their true face after a couple releases. For fans, the revealed knowledge doesn’t kill the thrill, but it makes it hard to get caught up in new ones. What was achieved by stealth has to be replicated under the watching eyes of a fickle and jaded audience.

jj have made a tentative retreat with jj nº 3, their second full-length release. Its predecessor, jj nº 2, featured a fragile and unlikely blend of elements: easy-listening Balearic electronica was pushed right up against pop-rap knockoffs; adolescent soul-baring sincerity hopped gladly into bed with straight-faced irony. How could something so texturally soft and inoffensive also seem so fresh and enticing? Websites gushed; a backlash ensued. For every kid out there who thinks jj’s sunny Swedish indie pop is an icon of paradise, there’s that other guy who realizes that their technique is weak. Technically, they’re not all that good, and the occasional context-defying surprise doesn’t change that.

I’m not convinced that I should consider these skeptics to be haters, per se, but if jj had haters, “My Life” would be a piece of hater-baiting. Did you think the Lil Wayne-sampling club drug ode “Ecstasy” was a joke made in poor taste? Well, this time, they’ve stolen an entire Lil Wayne chorus, and not one of the funny ones either. “Dear Lord, you took so many of my people/ But I’m just wonderin’ why you haven’t taken my life…” Elin Kastlander sings with the same languid, blank-eyed plaintiveness that she uses to sing lines like “I’ll never be alone again/ ‘Cause I’ve got a friend,” but here, I detect a touch of Auto-Tune. Is this supposed to be funny, or is it ‘art’? At the end of the song, when she starts singing the “la la la la la la” part from ATC’s 2000 hit “Around the World,” with the lonely piano still echoing in the background, you squint your eyes and scratch your head. “Well, it sure sounded good,” you say to yourself.

Yeah, it sounds good. Kastlander’s voice is simple yet captivating, and Joakim Benon’s instrumentals evoke a stubborn, romantic youthfulness that, despite their house-by-way-of-Enya DNA and sly intimations of Jermaine Dupri, feel quintessentially ‘indie.’ jj’s sonic universe is relentlessly pleasant, and often effortlessly so. Unassuming album centerpiece “Light” consists mostly of whistling, humming, picked guitars, and the gentle promptings of a transparent synth, the whole edifice sounding fragile and perfect in spite of itself, in spite of the air of casualness that wheezes from its seams. And even though the lyrics of “Voi Parlate, Io Gioco” sound like another rap transcription — I’m pretty sure they lifted a key line from Tha Carter III’s “Got Money” — the musical background is peaceful enough to suggest a chemical high. The way the guitar fret noise rubs up aganst the muffled hip-hop-sounding 808 is a subtle stroke of brilliance. “I don’t care what those people say,” Kastlander sings. Indeed, she doesn’t.

jj struck a subtle and surprising balance with their debut, but this time around, they’ve withdrawn, letting their techniques dangle in the air, starving for justification. The effort is weaker for it; softer songs like “Let Go” and “Golden Virginia” disrupt the spell by getting buried in their own fluff. While some songs have lines that reach through the haze, like album closer “No Escapin’ This” (“I’m just a kid with my breath to lose”), this short and unassuming album doesn’t have enough of a skeleton to prop itself up. “From Africa to Málaga” was a blessing of a song, but it had the element of surprise on its side. jj still have a lot to prove if they plan on enduring the internet’s blinding flourescent spotlight for any length of time.

Links: jj - Secretly Canadian

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