opinion byMICHAEL WOJTAS
At first blush, of-the-instant London duo Jungle comes across almost like a caricature of a focus-grouped, think-tanked XL hype band. Known solely as J and T, they’ve got the semi-anonymity of labelmates SBTRKT dialed. And having debuted out of nowhere with last year’s viral-ish “Platoon” video, they have a cunning, unpredictable approach to self-promotion that recalls Jai Paul’s mysteriousness. Jungle’s sound itself streamlines M.I.A.’s internationally conscious complexities into a smoothly funky electro-soul; their faux-vintage aesthetic could conceivably come from the same universe as the label’s most monstrous success, Adele.
Dubiously calculated as that all may seem, a respectable ambition lurks beneath their self-titled debut’s coolly stoned façade. There’s a palpable sense that Jungle is intent on providing an urban UK parallel to the culturally comprehensive avant-pop of Talking Heads and XL’s own Vampire Weekend. Notorious film critic Pauline Kael once wrote of the live Heads doc Stop Making Sense, “Seeing the movie is like going to an austere orgy—which turns out to be just what you wanted,” and that seems weirdly applicable to Jungle’s performances and best moments on record. There’s something welcomingly anti-sleazy—if gritty and greasy—about their inhibition-freeing live act and singles. By adroitly tapping into the tightly coiled tension/release aspects of Afrobeat and house music, they offer catharsis suited for both the raver kids crowding up front at shows and the head-nodding crate-diggers hanging out in the back row.
This notion of inclusivity is only reinforced by that breakdancing kiddie video for the still infectious “Platoon,” as well as Jungle’s standout single “Busy Earnin’,” which boasts a sentiment winningly vague enough to pass for recession years gripping, yuppie-approved anthem or perfectly mindless catchiness. Throughout the album, though, they’re still noticeably struggling to perfect a globally informed sound that unites the desires of the heart, head and feet (something that David Byrne, Ezra Koenig and their respective bands already succeeded at wildly). Often, Jungle can convincingly speak to any one of these facets, but rarely do they bridge the gaps between all three.
Opener “The Heat” manages to convincingly teleport the spooky inner-city paranoia of the Specials’ “Ghost Town” to our millennium, though it hardly moves like the aforementioned highlights. Meanwhile, “Drops,” an attempt at contemplatively expressed heartache, is little more than a middling James Blake impression. Apart from these deviations, Jungle settles into a mildly psychedelic default mode defined by discotheque falsetto, mutedly jubilant horns and trippy, effects-soaked synth intrusions that mimic blaring sirens and rainforest fauna. These more experimental inclinations are consistently tempered by retro-warm production, and typical cuts like “Julia,” “Time” and “Crumbler” suggest Can, Jamiroquai and Fela Kuti being simultaneously fed through some kind of audio Instagram filter. It all averages out to the last thing we might have expected from a band that introduced themselves to the world with such oddball verve: Inviting middlebrow pop that’s no smarter or dumber than it needs to be to simply hold our attention for 40 minutes. B-