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Junior Boys try to make techno intimate on Big Black Coat

On their fifth LP, the Canadian duo play with the possibility of reinvention

Junior Boys emerged in 1999 as a fully formed group of two, but their first single — the double-sided "Birthday" / "Last Exit" — didn’t come out until 2003. That’s partially because Jeremy Greenspan’s collaborator Johnny Dark was replaced by Matt Didemus before any demos were released. These early Junior Boys tracks sounded like late-'90s Bedside Drama-era Of Montreal, trying to hide their aching desire in a weird wash of cold electronics. Since then, Junior Boys have warped that desire into several other things (most recently, 2011’s It’s All True experimented with minimal New Wave and dance pop). But the band’s fifth LP, Big Black Coat is more extravagant than anything Junior Boys has done before. It’s the sound of them picking apart their old sounds and sewing them back together so you can’t see the stitches.

Elements of Big Black Coat feel directly pulled from the projects Greenspan and Didemus have worked on in the five-year interim between Junior Boys albums. Didemus began recording steely techno under the moniker DIVA, and Greenspan dropped a few solo tracks of his own while working with artists like Friendly Fires and Jessy Lanza. Big Black Coat folds the pair’s long-standing taste for Detroit techno into a context that includes recent electronic and R&B émigrés like Disclosure and Miguel. The album emerges from a place of maximalism, but uses a sense of intimacy to retain the band’s minimalist past. Big Black Coat tries to answer an question that often arises several albums into a band’s splintering career: how do you make something desperate for company capable of standing on its own?

How do you make something desperate for company capable of standing on its own?

Big Black Coat begins with "You Say That," a big, cinematic-opening-sequence track that sounds like one part Imogen Heap, one part Timbaland, and one part Bee Gees greatest hits. "Over It" pulls its influence into a more current space; its heartbeat-charged percussion and Greenspan’s bruised vocals wouldn’t sound out of place on the slinkier end of Drake’s OVO label. The first few tracks are some of Big Black Coat’s most hummable songs, but rather than make the album feel top-heavy, their stickiness helps prepare the listener for BBC’s central theme: seduction. A taste of this seduction, in titles: "C’mon Baby," "Baby Give Up On It," "Baby Don’t Hurt Me." The Junior Boys of a decade ago liked to linger over Greenspan’s pained whisper. Here, Greenspan sounds like he’s leaving behind that pain in favor of something slightly more predatory.

For all its breathy warmth, Big Black Coat maintains its distance from listeners with sharp instrumental interludes. Junior Boys have always been interested in empty space — most recently, It’s All True often used vocals as punctuation between sounds — but Big Black Coat uses space as a balancing tool against the album’s more human desires. Junior Boys have always leaned toward chilly techno, but on Big Black Coat the synths sound like they could scratch you just as easily as they could keep you warm. "M&P" stops and starts, shivering nervously around Greenspan’s come-hither sighs. The Bobby Caldwell cover "What You Won’t Do For Love" uses bright synth stubs and industrial bass drums to push against Greenspan’s whispered refrain: "What you won’t do / do for love / you’ve tried everything / don’t give up."

The impossibility of total reinvention

Big Black Coat marks a shift in Junior Boys’ career. It’s not necessarily a maturation, but an excavation of the past. There were songs on It’s All True and 2006’s So This is Goodbye that sounded like they were asking permission to do more, but Big Black Coat feels pleased with its own indulgence. The album ends with its title track, a chilly synth cut with rippled, echoey vocals. At over seven minutes long, it’s the strangest, most disaffected song on the album. The track is an interesting way to end what has been Junior Boys’ slickest release to date: it’s strange and secluded, practically pulsing with a desire to be left alone. Maybe they’re making a point about the impossibility of total reinvention.