Swedish duo loses itself in the ether
jj evokes a world where pop music’s ultimate pursuit is immaculate fluff, and that’s not an insult. Between its burbling timbres and breathy vocals, its feathery production and demure touches, the duo’s first album—confusingly titled jj nº 2 (“nº 1” was a single)—seemed to be set on a warm beach inhabited by day dreamers fanasizing about flitting around foreign continents (the bouncy single “From Africa to Málaga”) over lambent, near-Hawaiian guitars and Peter Gabriel-ish production. It featured an interpolation of Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” that was every bit as buttery and sugar-powdered as the original songs that hinted at bandmates Elin Katlander and Joakim Benon’s affinitity for early Everything But the Girl. Katlander sounded caring, empathetic and somewhat mystical, but a little blank. Of course, Swedes aren’t the most forthcoming of people (I’m from Minnesota, which counts as research). Hell, no one even knew who these two people were until the beginning of this year; for a while, it was rumored that jj was the anonymous side project of some folks from The Tough Alliance, whose label Sincerely Yours released the duo’s record.
jj nº 3 arrives to eager expectations that seem a little misplaced. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine Katlander and Benon lunging for the brass ring. For another, this album sounds like a retreat, not an advance; it’s more tentative than jj nº 2, and however appropriate that might seem given jj’s generally wispy air, it’s not an encouraging development. Like the last one, this album—which is 27 minutes long, shorter than a lot of purported EPs these days—doesn’t really rev up until the fluttery disco of “Into the Light,” which is still pretty slow-mo. (It’s also followed by a track called “Light,” which is too damn literal to be clever.)
The songs on jj nº 2, for all their aural padding, had defined edges; they were shapely, from the strings on “Things Will Never Be the Same Again” to Katlander’s surprisingly tough vocals on the acoustic “Are You Still in Vallda?” jj nº 3 doesn’t feel that way. Here, “Light”—driven by tranquil acoustic guitars, a smidgen of whistling and a dusting of electronics—is lovely during the instrumental section, but ultimately floats away without leaving much impression.
Emotionally, the album is as melancholy as the music makes it sound. “And Now” goes, in part, “Take it for what it’s worth / Those days we walked the earth / Remember how much it hurts / Just a tiny taste / Oh, let us go to waste.” Even the forthright words of “Voi Parlate, Io Gioco” (“I don’t know about you / But I need something new / I don’t care what the people say / I ’m gonna get it anyway”) sound somewhat inert when Katlander coos them so affectlessly; the song’s mild breakbeat doesn’t amp it up any, either. “Golden Virginia,” with its ghostly background vocals and soft-focus bass-drum beat (not to mention the wooden flute solo), skirts Enya a little too closely for comfort.
“Voi Parlate” features, in the midst of what sounds like a xylophone solo, the heavily reverberant sound of Joakim Benon’s finger sliding down a guitar string as it changes chords. It’s one of those moments of sonic luxury that has drawn people to jj’s music; as with much headphones music, touches like that are part of the appeal. But it’s hard not to wonder if those touches aren’t superseding the basic sonic framework here. There’s plenty of pleasant stuff to sink one’s ears into on jj nº 3. There’s just not enough underneath it.