jj – jj n° 3 (2010)
by Mike Mineo
I have seen few artists follow up on hype as quickly as jj. The elusive Swedish project received some of the hottest press of 2009 for their second album, jj n° 2, but that did not exactly translate to a rewarding vacation. Head proprietors Joakim Benon and Elin Kastlander chose to head right back into the studio instead, hoping to again capture the magic that made jj n° 2 so special. Their infusion of electro-pop, reggae, and world music combined for an excellent and exotic sound less than a year ago, with most references placing them between the throwback italo-disco of Sally Shapiro and the contemporary electronica of fellow Swedish artists like Air France or The Tough Alliance. Samples of ocean waves or children laughing coincided with lush and melodic moments of pure awe, producing an excellent pop album that showed admiration for both expansive world music and minimalistic electro-pop. Its perfect medium was what allowed for its consummate success, and jj’s lack of any personalized enigma whatsoever meant that all attention was warranted. With this most recent Grammys showcasing quite the opposite, it was nice to have an artist that got so far on their music alone (jj does not even have a MySpace or official site yet). The public image of jj was literally obsolete and it made both their presence and music even more endearing.
If I were to be sympathetic, I would call jj n° 3 an interesting failure. Whereas many artists attempt to defy industry standards after experiencing momentous acclaim, jj has oddly reverted to territory that is less creative, atmospheric, and not in accordance to the strengths displayed so prominently on jj n° 2. Despite a few flourishes of success on jj n° 3, the album falls flat on its face. Tthe only aspect here comparable to jj n° 2 is Kastlander’s voice, with the accompaniments behind her not containing nearly enough versatility or memorability. It is a significant change from the interesting, exotic, and caressing sounds of jj n° 2. The actual music on its successor sits in more restrained territory that sees delicate keys, chirps of synths, and predictable hooks combine for a generic sound that sits more in line with Enya’s interpretation of New Age and World music. The problem with this comparison is that Kastlander has already treated fans to jj n° 2, which was one of the few albums able to combine lushly atmospheric electronic pop with seductive female vocals. Comparisons there were more pertinent to The Tough Alliance or Massive Attack, who are much more pertinent and well-regarded today. jj n° 2 surprisingly sounds outdated, irrelevant, and rushed. Kastlander’s voice is still seductively chilly, but the arrangements no longer enhance them to soaring heights. Perhaps they were aiming for more minimalistic, DIY territory, but the songwriting is not nearly memorable enough to compensate for the absence of atmosphere, mood, and melodic progression in most tracks.
Such comparative analysis are likely to make those with no experience of jj n° 2 wonder if they will enjoy its follow-up. It is true that jj n° 2 is on a completely different level than jj n° 3 both in terms of innovation and consistency, but even those who enjoy the stylistic transgression on jj n° 3 should tire of it quickly. The songs all blend together into one, which can be beneficial or detrimental depending on the initial presentation. Here though, there is nothing to get excited about early on. The opening “My Life” attempts to establish a personal connection with the listener as reverbed piano and vocals enforce a tragic tale of retrospective contemplation. Like many efforts here though, it comes off as way too forced. The melodies, which were so strong before, take such a dip on this album and it is evident immediately from this. To be honest, some of the melodies sound like hip-hop b-sides because they are cluttered in choruses and hooks so generic that only a witty persona in an entirely different genre could salvage it. Some songs are quite depressing in this regard, mainly because occasionally there is one great idea that is never properly expanded upon. “Let Go” opens with a beautiful melody that borrows from both italo-disco and lush balladry. Kastlander employs the perfect tone under the trickling of melodically invigorating synths, only to be interrupted by an awful chorus of over-utilized synth pads that sound like an Enya reject. Kastlander also sounds occasionally disinterested on tracks like “Voi Parlate, lo Gioco”, where clumsy percussion combines with hesitant vocals that stick out like a sore thumb. It sounds as if this recording was a practice run and they were going to touch it up later, only to be rushed by the presence of hype. This is the case for a lot of tracks here.
A song like “And Now” is indicative of the album’s general weaknesses. The first minute or so finds an extremely discordant string melody appearing in prominence, as if it were something to be proud of. It sounds like the band is merely trying to show us they are able to implement strings, with its melodic dullness and awkwardness growing concurrently to contradict any initial intention. The synthesized strings tread on for increasingly long considering it is a three-minute pop song, and when the mid-way point occurs with nothing but three guitar chords and lagging vocals attempting to disguise their fallacies under the horrendous string progression then we begin to realize how disastrous an effort like this really is. Even the lyrical content is unbearable, and when you combine that with no melodic transition whatsoever then nothing is left but filler. It is humorous when “Into the Light” attempts to employ samples by using a sports broadcast, but it just comes across as desperately contrived and unnecessary like the rest of jj n° 3. A track like “Light” is occasionally able to remind listeners of the airy atmospherics of jj n° 2, even if the sloppy acoustics do not provide the endearing effect as initially planned. The album is not polished enough to assume it was intentional. When these types of observations is made it becomes difficult to evaluate an album like this one, since the intentions on jj n° 3 are clearly different than their predecessor. This is a rushed job, plain and simple, and I really hope that jj can one day recapture the magic of jj n° 2. This unfortunately is not the year.