In retrospect, it’s hard to see the coy mysteriousness surrounding hazy pop duo jj as much more than a gimmick. Not to say that it wasn’t a captivating or extremely successful one, as most internet tastemakers became enamored with these elusive Swedes and helped propel them into the upper echelons of buzz in 2009. But with that kind of meteoric rise at a time when virtually anyone can help fuel a web 2.0 hype machine with any number of free resources, it seems pointless to suggest that such a widespread lack of knowledge was neither calculated nor irresistibly intriguing. Of course, gimmick alone means little if you aren’t producing good music. jj certainly hasn’t had a problem on that front; thus far the output from Joakin Benon and Elin Kastlander has been pretty exceptional, especially their 2009 effort jj n° 2. And now, just eight months since that album dropped, jj is back with another full-length, the aptly and functionally titled jj n° 3.
Still on the comedown from jj n° 2‘s drug-addled, sunny Balearic pop bliss, some have been quick to write off this latest, more subdued effort for lacking the same immediate allure and memorable songwriting as jj’s debut. The songs that populate these records were reportedly conceived and recorded at the same time, so despite its seemingly hasty release there’s no justification in saying that jj n° 3 was rushed, though it has been referred to as “jj n° 2 b-sides.” But as the double-edged sword of how (and how quickly) jj entered the collective consciousness of the indie world starts to cut the other way, I’ve found that repeated listens have helped to displace initial disappointment and reveal more strengths than shortcomings on this record.
Pushing from summer to its counterpoint with this “winter album,” Joakin and Elin still cannot escape the ever-present tropical vibe that permeates their songs. This time around it’s far subtler and dives even further into nostalgic melancholy, but jj n° 3 still transports the listener far from their own existence, fuzzy images of expansive nature and sensations of sunshine and cool breezes accenting conveyed feelings of both warm relationships and pristine solitude. Juxtaposition seems to come naturally for jj, as opener “My Life” demonstrates rather bluntly with its collision of sorrowful piano and stolen Lil’ Wayne and Daft Punk hooks. That sounds terrible written out, but somehow it all typically works, if at times inspiring a smirk or an eye roll. With the amount of charisma that Joakin and Elin exude all things become that much easier: their youthful naiveté and melodrama escapes easy criticism because it’s just too charming, their occasional dips into almost new agey soft-pop are interwoven and performed so seamlessly that it feels right.
Though jj n° 3 has been faulted on the memorability front, there are a handful of catchy, repeat-worthy gems here that strike at the infectiousness that is becoming characteristic of jj. Perhaps not as direct as their best songs, lead single “Let Go” is a restrained, plaintive and minimal anthem that highlights Elin’s soft and ethereal voice, embodying the more languid tone of this record. That tone is brightened considerably on the bubbly and playful standout “Voi Parlate, Lo Gioco,” its upbeat guitar strums and bouncy, synthesized xylophone and strings soar along with the vocal melodies as the purest and most immediate hooks on the record. After the brief detour of “Golden Virginia,” the sweet falling-for-you confessions of “You Know” carries jj n° 3 up to similar heights of unabashed pop.
So even if this record doesn’t improve upon the foundation laid by jj n° 2, it’s important to remember that it’s really a part of the same statement. A bit weaker, yes, but its aims are also different. Deliberately less immediate and outright hook-driven, it shouldn’t be surprising that our expectations weren’t met — they were just sidestepped.
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