The winter months can be a miserable time. For those of us unlucky enough to live more than a stone’s throw from the equator, they mean short (sometimes even nonexistent) days, grey skies, storms, floods, snow, that awful ice that just looks like a bit of snow but has the slippery underfoot consistency of a slapstick banana skin… the list goes on. But there’s also a brighter side to winter. The warm rush of a roaring pub fire. Bright city lights sparkling on a cold clear night. A sense of camaraderie that surrounds the season - we’re all in this together. Hailing from the chilly city of Hamilton, Ontario, Canadian cohorts Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus have made it their mission to infuse Big Black Coat, their first record together as Junior Boys since 2006’s So This Is Goodbye, with a combination of the wintertime’s most melancholy and uplifting moments.
On first thought, it makes total sense - holing yourself up in a warm studio with an arsenal of synths and samplers at your command seems like the perfect way for a musician to spend the cooler months. But this record is much more than the idle product of a cold, boring winter. Instead, it could be defined as a concept record of sorts - about winter, about Hamilton, but also about places that will be familiar to many of us - ailing, failing urban centres. The decline of heavy industries throughout the western world - and the fall of the communities that are built around them - haunts this record, infusing it with the deep human sadness of once-great cities and broken dreams. Although such weighty and depressing subject matter could threaten to make Big Black Coat a particularly heavy listen, the band have in fact played things just right with 11 spacious, warm tracks of synth pop, disco, blue-eyed soul and R&B. One can almost imagine the duo of Greenspan and Didemus stalking about in the urban cold in their respective Big Black Coats.
This approach is most effective on the chilling 'And It’s Forever', all insistent, driving rhythms, cascading, slushy synths and an eerie vocal refrain that backs up a mournful tale of love gone wrong. The title track and 'Over It' - both released as teaser tracks before the full album drops - are also standouts. The former closes the record with one of its most distinctive offerings - an urgent, cacophonous take that stutters and whirrs quite charmingly before exploding into a bassy boom and finally into waves of turbulent synth that wash the album away like an evening tide. 'Over It' meanwhile lopes along with metronomic abandon, cheered on by one of the record’s strongest vocal takes, a subtly pitchshifted paean just oozing with soul. Junior Boys even try their hand at a cover - a twitchy take on Bobby Caldwell’s 'What You Won’t Do For Love', which, nestled into the centre of the album, provides the record with a particularly moving and powerful emotional core.
After such a long hiatus, Junior Boys are well aware that many listeners to Big Black Coat will be hearing the duo for the first time, and as such they have made the record in a way that simultaneously embraces their past efforts, pays homage to their influences and breaks new ground sonically. In this endeavour it is ultimately successful on all fronts, and is a perfect introduction to their work. Despite perhaps being a little too tasteful to truly excite, Big Black Coat is an accomplished, soulful effort that will reward casual listeners and audiophiles alike. While this truly is a record of the winter, there’s enough here to ensure that you’ll still be listening well into the first joyful burst of spring - and beyond.
7Paul Stephen Gettings's Score