Yet another exciting band in what’s beginning to feel like an endless stream of exciting Swedish musical exports, Junip is perhaps the most eclectic of the bunch. As their second and self-titled record indicates, the Gothenburg trio – which features singer-guitarist-songwriter Jose Gonzalez, drummer Elias Araya, and keyboardist Tobia Winkerton – plays an unclassifiable music that treats indie pop, prog rock, post rock, and electronica as musical puzzle pieces that they put together to make intriguing sound pictures.
Opening cut – “Line of Fire” – sets the tone for Junip’s diverse approach to their arrangements, which are the band’s strong suit and bring Gonzalez’ songs alive. Winkerton plays some mellow organ at the outset. But when Gonzalez’ voice and guitar enter, he asks the listener a key question that’s the antithesis of “mellow”: “What would you do if it all came back to you?” he sings – and the song eventually climaxes in a wonderful brew of harmonious noise, featuring strings, heavy guitar, and electronic effects.
The arrangement and production on “Line of Fire” are big and complex – as they are on most of the songs on Junip. This vastness is crucial because it serves as a nice contrast to Gonzalez’ vocals, which are soft and pretty. In other words, Junip succeeds in creating exciting and extraordinary dynamics that bring their tracks to life.
A great example of this is album’s third track, “So Clear.” Keyboards, again, function as a way for Junip to introduce the song. Winkerton’s playing sounds like Todd Rundgren’s piano work on one of the hits off Something/Anything?, and Gonzalez’ vocals and guitar playing follow suit. But Junip populates their sound with hard guitar and some incredible, retro-sounding synth work. Araya complements Jose and Tobia by simply bashing away on drums.
As Junip progresses, the band reveals Winkerton to be one of their greatest strengths. “Your Life Your Call” demonstrates that Junip can play dance music. Winkerton’s keyboards and effects add both melody and texture to a beat and vocal line that would sound rather simplistic without them.
The heavy electronics of “Villain” explore the distorted synth tones of bands like Depeche Mode in their Songs of Faith and Devotion incarnation. But because the song’s running time is a scant 1:58, it feels more like the sketch for a better (and longer) song. In other words, the track is so compelling that you wish that it could have gone on longer. And later in the record, the acoustic-based “Head First” suffers the same problem.
“Walking Lightly” could be the best song here. It opens the second half of Junip with the band showing its full instrumental force. Winkerton’s dark synth tones and keyboard work combine with some terrific Araya percussion and Gonzalez guitars to introduce the best vocal melody on the record. The song is positively poppy, its melodic infectiousness upheld by Winkerton’s astonishing keyboard fills and solos. And Araya’s percussion is Caribbean-influenced, providing an extra sonic texture that smacks of world music.
The previously mentioned “Head First” is just one of the slow, calm tracks of which the second half of Junip consists. “Baton” and album closer “After All Is Said and Done” are others. These songs sound remarkably similar to Low. But Gonzalez simply doesn’t have the vocal chops of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker to make these minimalistic tunes interesting or beautiful. They’re sort of just there.
But the penultimate track – “Beginnings” – is an altogether a different beast. It begins at a similarly slow pace, but the drumming and guitar work are more vibrant, even though they’re tonally dark. This track works better than the other slow songs on Junip’s second half because Winkerton provides tremendous keyboards that build to noisy blasts of energy that give the song dynamics. Araya hits very hard during these tumultuous sections, and Gonzalez’ guitar licks in the fade return the song to its calm beginnings.
On the second album, Junip avoids the traditional sophomore slump. Although their record contains songs that work best as ideas and not as fully realized pieces of music and tracks that are mellow to the point of being turgid, the material that does work works incredibly well. Junip shows a band on the rise. They’re yet another Swedish band to keep an eye on.