Fumbling Around in the Dark: JJ's 'Death', Reviewed

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In the early 2010s, JJ was breaking out on bouncy, stoned-in-the-tropics electronic pop. A title like Death lets them disassociate from that right from the outset, but the 13 minutes of music aren’t nearly as dire you might expect. Death will hint at rock bottom moments, but it’s never anything that a little chemically-influenced optimism can’t solve.

This message is clearest on “Truce”, a song that toggles between moody, antagonistic verses and high-flying choruses that proclaim, “woke up today / oh what a day.” This morning rebirth is set to a guitar strum with snowballing momentum, before being undercut by another swaggering verse. But the warmth of the hook lingers in the mind: “I made a friend, I made a trend / it’s just some chemicals are made to blend.” It’s a satisfying moment, but it also sets up the main problem with this bite-sized EP: despite it’s small size, it feels like you’re waiting a long time between those moments.

The way JJ blends genres, from ambient electronica to pop to hip-hop, has always been a source of tickling delight. It persists even here, although in a less pronounced form. The opening combo of “Fuck It” and “Truce” have vocals that crib hip hop flows, and while the mix is interesting, it’s not much more than that. They’re the musical equivalent of seeing something funny on the internet and exhaling one hard breath through your nose, as opposed to audibly laughing out loud. It’s pleasurable, but it’s tiny and passes immediately.

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JJ has always been an oddly wordy band. Odd, because they aren’t necessarily wordsmiths, but they sure do like to put their writing front and center. In the past, their poetry has always been clunky but poetic nonetheless — they seemed to, somehow, reliably stumble into some nice lyrical gems. Despite that, it’s hard to call them craftsmen, and it stands out on Death where all their over-writing feels like they’re exposing themselves. The easy nursery style rhymes and minimal ideas conveyed over multiple lines makes you wish they just leaned on the hooks and whittled down to the bars that shine. The aforementioned “Fuck It” in particular feels like they’re piling on words until the song seems long enough, as if these are light sketches, or they’re taking first runs at the skeleton of an idea.

This is compounded by “Pills”, the centerpiece of the EP, which starts out merely pleasant until it hits its eureka moment — halfway through the song. Drums and bass kick in under the hook to create a truly excellent groove, and, recognizing that, the song rides it to a satisfying conclusion. It clicks late, and you wonder why they didn’t just start with that nugget of gold and build from there. Instead, JJ insists on having us watch the process of fumbling around in the dark for the light switch. Maybe just start when the lights are on. C