When a band's debut album is a decade in the making, you know there must be a great backstory there somewhere. Was the album's delay caused by obsessive perfectionism? Artistic differences? The old standby, rock 'n roll excess?
In the case of Junip, a Swedish group that headlined the Black Cat last Saturday, none of the above apply.
The band traces its lineage to the late 1990s and released a five-song EP in 2004, but shortly after, singer-songwriter Jose Gonzalez broke out as an international indie sensation, gradually selling more than a million albums worldwide. Gonzalez' epic 2005 album Veneer appeared on many year-end best of lists and he generated a very solid 2007 followup, In Our Nature.
As Gonzalez toured extensively, Junip fell further by the wayside and its other two members, keyboardist Tobias Winterkorn and percussionist Elias Araya, went on to focus on other pursuits in and out of music.
The group - always an intermittent project - reconvened last year to release its first full length, Fields (released in the U.S. on Mute), which has received widespread critical acclaim, including album of the year honors from one publication. Yet mention to another Gonzalez fan that he fronts Junip and the incredulous response is still "Jose has a band?"
This sentiment was evident Saturday by a nearly half-empty venue on what is normally its busiest night of the week. Those who weren't there, however, missed a mesmerizing set by a group that together transcends its more famous frontman and one that has not often toured the U.S. in recent years.
Junip drew mostly from the songs from Fields, effortlessly pulling in an enthusiastic crowd. The band's sound doesn't deviate wildly from Gonzalez' brand of smart indie folk, and his trademark nylon string guitar and reedy tenor are still centerpieces. What lends Junip its considerable mojo, though, is the eclectic spectrum of sound from Winterkorn's analog keys and his interplay with the rest of the group.
At times, Winterkorn's swirly, whooshy sound was darkly sinister and atmospheric, at others chimey or bordering on prog, and his vintage Moog synth and Fender Rhodes tones served the the songs well, anchoring them but never overwhelming the rest of the band.
On the road, the trio is joined by a second percussionist and a bassist, both of whom back Gonzalez on vocals. Together, the group produce an often haunting, droning, reverb-heavy sound sprinkled with Afro-beat rhythms, Latin-influenced tinges, jammy-trippy elements and very subtle pinches of krautrock. Live, the songs have a powerful, propulsive effect, often starting slowly and then steadily building momentum, as if the band is coasting downhill by the end.
Best way to experience Junip? Get really, REALLY close to them!
Many of these elements were on display Saturday in renditions of "In Every Direction" and "Always", two concise, three-plus minute numbers from Fields, the latter of which is arguably the new album's signature track. It would have been nice, though, to hear Junip's "The Ghost of Tom Joad", the unusual Springsteen cover from its Black Refuge EP and one of the better covers among many Gonzalez has generated. (In addition to covers of Joy Division and Massive Attack, Gonzalez once famously covered Kylie Minogue.) The band released another EP, Rope & Summit, for free last year on its website.
Gonzalez, who has headlined memorable shows at DC's 9:30 Club and 6th and I Historic Synagogue in recent years, was in typically good spirits, bantering lightly with the crowd and introducing new numbers. His acoustic is beginning to bear witness to life on the road, showing honest wear on its face and pieced together with adhesive tape in one spot.
With Junip, Gonzalez relies more on a rhythmic, percussive guitar technique and less on fingerpicking, lightly brushing the alternate-tuned strings in time with the two percussionists and never using a pick.
Junip demonstrated Saturday that it's clearly its own entity and not a Gonzalez side project, and the cohesiveness showed. Araya, for instance, has played with Gonzalez since both were 14.
Junip's show was sandwiched between appearances at Bonnaroo and one the following night in New York City in conjunction with a showing of the new documentary The Extraordinary Ordinary Life of Jose Gonzalez. The producers of that film followed Gonzalez for portions of three years.
As the crowd swayed and nodded Saturday while the music washed over it, it became obvious that half-empty houses may be a thing of the past if Junip continues its current momentum.
For those of you who missed it (don't let it happen again), check out the band performing "Don't Let It Pass" for LA's The Wilcox Sessions