Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Review: Röyksopp - Junior (* * * *)

The title of Röyksopp’s third album, Junior, might be considered less than original, and with their next planned release labeled Senior, you’d hope that they had saved their energy for the music itself. Fortunately, the title is the least creative thing about the Norwegian duo’s first disc of original material in five years, which takes the best ideas from the band’s past two albums and combines them into material that is fresh, fun, and expertly realized. Featuring an all-star female vocal cast consisting of Robyn, Anneli Drecker, The Knife’s Karin Dreijer Andersson, and Lykke Li -- the duo of Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland have compiled an engaging set of expressive electronic tunes.

While many considered Röyksopp’s sophomore effort, The Understanding, to be something of a misstep for the group, the band didn’t completely revert to the down-tempo electronic soundscapes of their debut, Melody A.M. Instead, the duo keep vocal-centric tunes the norm on Junior, but present them in a way that channels the greatness of their earliest work. The music continues The Understanding’s louder, more intense, sound, but the songs feel much more focused this time around, creating variety without distracting from the album as a whole. Opener “Happy Up Here” is funky, light-hearted, and most importantly, uniquely Röyksopp, though it’s a slightly misleading first single. The majority of the remaining songs on Junior are much less peppy and sugary, though thankfully nothing gets too heavy-handed or self-serious.

Early highlight “The Girl and the Robot” features an excellent vocal performance by super-Swede Robyn in a techno-tinged tale of a lonely girl and her hard-working lover that’s both emotional and a little goofy, while “Vision One” tells the story of robotic, loveless world while Berge and Bruntland create a dark, churning backdrop to compliment the over-dramatic lyrics. Elsewhere, the music crosses into trance-like territory on “This Must Be It” with Karin Dreijer Andersson, and a lighter, more pp-oriented feel for “Miss It So Much,” both of which the duo handle fantastically. These tunes find an enjoyable balance between sincerity and playfulness, and only occasionally does the music become overbearing as on the urgent, but annoying “Tricky Tricky.”

Of the two instrumental tracks on the disc, one is superb while the other lacks any punch. “Röyksopp Forever” is a beautifully dark and lush song with layers of strings providing additional tension to the subtle and melodic electronics. It’s good enough to wish Röyksopp had included a few more on the disc, but the lackluster sound of “Silver Cruiser” serves as a reminder that the focus of the album lies not on mood alone, but on the talented and appropriate selection of singers that enhance the duo’s incredible production capabilities. That’s where the magic in the record lies, with Röyksopp’s ability to compile a selection of songs that combine the band’s musical chops with their guest’s contributions, building something much greater and grander than Berge and Brundtland could likely have offered alone.

Junior has a few weak moments, but it rises above any flaws with great compositions, fascinating arrangements, and almost spotless production. While it probably won’t compare to the band’s debut in the eyes of most fans, it nonetheless provides enough solid material to warrant the high praise the record has received. It will be interesting to see if the duo’s upcoming companion album, Senior, can carry the momentum, but Junior is more than enough to love for now.

Last Word: Norway’s favorite sons return with a much more consistent and enjoyable follow-up to 2004’s The Understanding. With excellent guest vocal contributions and a more focused approach, Junior is a solid electronic pop album.