Best served chilled

How a simple big black coat has become an essential cultural marker in one of the 20th century's most iconic artefacts - the black-and-white photograph of a hunched James Dean strolling through Times Square, with a cigarette in his mouth and braving the cold rain.

The said picture was taken by photographer Dennis Stock, who ran it as part of a photo essay for Life magazine, before Dean died, aged 24, in a car crash months later in September 1955.

I think of this and Life, the recent film directed by Anton Corbijn which starred Dane DeHaan as Dean and Robert Pattinson as Stock, while listening to the chilled, chilly record by the Canadian electronic pop duo, Junior Boys.

Singer Jeremy Greenspan said the band's fifth studio album, Big Black Coat, was inspired by the guys he saw in downtown Hamilton, Ontario, "who just were lonely and walking around", and "frustrated by everything".

To Greenspan, "the coat became a metaphor and an analogy of a way to insulate yourself away from the harshness of a Canadian winter".



    Junior Boys

    City Slang

    4 stars

Indeed, Junior Boys' metier is creating a sonic haven away from the bright lights. It empowers the introvert in his own terms.

Take, for instance, the album's title track and closer: It starts quiet and unobtrusive - everything in the minor key, including Greenspan's understated yet expressive falsetto.

"Everybody wants to be in your big black coat… everybody wants to have your smile," he repeats in the seven-minute title track, which encapsulates the range of emotions from desperation to hopefulness as it segues from Detroit techno to disco to R&B. It's the inner space externalised, the soul of the downtrodden given voice.

While Junior Boys have traditionally valued discretion over outlandishness, this time around, they cut loose, giving reprieve to those who glimpse the possibility of a better future, even if it's for an hour.

Not surprisingly, they turn to the thing called love, actualised in its Technicolor kaleidoscope.

Greenspan articulates the Everyman's subterranean hopes and desires. "I dream of you again last night, c'mon baby," Greenspan coos in C'mon Baby, as the motorik beats and chopped-up bass hint at something off. Towards the end, the synths become echoey and fluvial, before vanishing for good.

The duo updates Bobby Caldwell's 1978 soul classic, What You Won't Do For Love, by turning it into a late-night techno outing. The setting is a gleaming discotheque as the panoply of cymbals and nimble keys play off the sanguine near-whispers.

It's followed by a gorgeous house doozie, And It's Forever.

"It's what I do for you," comes the reply to the earlier song's passive-aggressive sentiments.

This time, Greenspan sounds at peace, lucid, free at last.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2016, with the headline 'Best served chilled'. Print Edition | Subscribe