Release Date: May 26th, 2015
Label: Last Gang Records
In the very broadest sense, the album ‘Jooj’ is a collection of more or less conventionally structured songs (bear with me here). However, both Adam Litovitz and Sook-Yin Lee are clearly adventurous and I doubt either one is interested in topping the popular charts. So the question becomes: is Jooj an experimental duo making an indie rock album, or is it an alternative/indie act that is seeking to push boundaries? Given the fact that they self-describe their music as “expressionistic minimalism” they have lofty aims, but nevertheless the question really goes unanswered.
The album opener “Shoulders and Whispers” is fairly typical of the album’s style (if it’s even possible to say such a thing). For the most part it is a simple pairing of Lee’s voice and a sombre piano. Despite the overall eeriness there is nothing challenging or outré here. It’s just a solid, intelligent song. Things do get a little more complicated as you venture further in – some distinctive sounds and synth work on “Hourglass” and the quasi-singing and spoken word on “Crushed” – but by the time you get to the utterly gorgeous “Ghost of Love” you may have concluded that it is the latter of the two options, i.e. this is a relatively conventional band playing some intriguing stuff. Think again.
“Crystalline” kicks off the second half of the record and it is pretty much avant-garde. With minimal musical backing, Lee embarks on a vocal journey of twists and turns. First there is singing, which devolves into a kind of moaning. This is followed by a flat monotone and then some wordless singing (there is an accompanying thumping beat by this time). Next comes the most bizarre bit as Lee makes croaking noises in the back of her throat. Finally, she relates an odd story in a whispered spoken voice. Not quite nightmarish, but certainly like a disturbing dream.
“Crystalline” may be the experimental high-water mark of the record, but it stands as fair warning that there is more unconventionality to come. The cinematic “Vagabond” contains discordant keyboard passages and some quirky chorus work (pah-pah-pahs and yodelling). “Hard Feeling” features several tempo shifts and some unorthodox electronic effects.
Just to muddy the waters, the album ends stylistically where it started – with a relatively simple pairing of (electric) piano and vocals. That isn’t to say, however, that this ode to Mordecai Richler isn’t satisfyingly off-beat.
Upon first listen, this state of affairs can be irritating. Litovitz and Lee obviously have the vision and capabilities to be very inventive and innovative, so why not go the whole hog and be wildly experimental? Alternatively, if they toned it down a tad this could be a fascinating mainstream alternative (is that an oxymoron?) pop/rock album. But with repeated listens any irritation dissipates as the music seeps in and takes a hold. It’s not because this is a good compromise – it’s because this is the way it is meant to sound. It’s the way Jooj is meant to sound. Forget the question, because it doesn’t matter which end of the spectrum you start from (experimental or conventional). All that matter is that you end up at the place known as Jooj.