Album of the Week: Fields, Junip

There are some albums that succeed on the strength of their individual songs, and some that work because they cover you with sound, cocooning you from whatever’s going on outside of your headphones or your stereo. Fields is the latter type of album. Put out in 2011 by Junip, a side project of singer-guitarist Jose Gonzalez, it’s still like nothing else I’ve ever heard. This is a weird album, man.

In a good way. There’s swirling organs, stripped down hip-hop drums, and some surprising harmonic stuff going on, all filtered through sort of a low-fi electronica filter. It sounds almost like something a heavily spaced-out Black Keys would have made circa Brothers if somebody thrust synthesizers into their hands, but that’s not really fair to either party, though it does give an idea of the grimy analog production.

You can almost hear the comparison, though, on songs like “Howl,” which harnesses a simple driving drumbeat and percussive guitar elements to drive it through its 3:36 length. There’s definitely a rock & roll rhythmic sensibility to a lot of the songs here—keep it simple, keep it repetitive, keep it driving forward.

Jose Gonzalez, though, doesn’t really have a rock & roll voice. He’s a naturally sweet singer who manages to imbue any lyric he delivers with an undercurrent of hope. Most of the lyrics on this album, though, don’t really work in a narrative mode and aren’t very structured. They’re more like mantras or chants, repeated over and over again and placed pretty low in the mix. I don’t think you’re supposed to catch every word, and anyway Gonzalez’s lackadaisical approach to diction makes that a challenge. For example, I thought they lyric in the latter half of “To The Grain” was “when I saw blood” for a really long time—it’s actually “when eyes are shut.” The overall effect, though, is that you stop listening for the lyrics and start listening to them—that is, you stop trying to follow what the singer is saying and listen to the notes he’s singing. The lyrics become just another melodic element in the song.

The songs on the album seem to be constructed in such a way that they resist traditional dissection. They’re densely layered with such a variety of keyboards, acoustic guitar, synth bass, and various electronic elements that it can be difficult to tease out particular parts. When you do follow, say, an acoustic guitar part all the way through a song, it turns out to be relatively simple and unchanging. Like a great dish, the finished product is something much greater than the individual ingredients. In music as in cooking, balance is key, and the songs maintain a nice ratio of electronic to acoustic sounds—the dry drums and acoustic guitar balance out the wetter, softer sounds of the keyboards and various synthesized flourishes.

When all this comes together on a cut like “Rope & Summit,” the end product is just so cool. It’s lean and menacing, like gathering storm clouds. The propulsive rhythm and looped vocals also make it a great driving song, something you can drum along to on the steering wheel as you hum down the interstate.

I almost never listen to individual songs from this album, though. Like most of the records I put on here, in order for the magic to work, you have to experience it in one sitting, like a movie. Unlike a movie, you don’t have to remain stationary while you absorb it—I put this album on when I need to be productive or when I want to add a little extra oomph to whatever mundane task I’m completing. For those willing to make the 45-minute commitment, Fields offers a potent dose of atmosphere, image, and feeling—musical escapism at its finest.

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