There was a brief moment about a decade ago when the influence of what we in music circles refer to as “downtempo music” reached a pervasive pinnacle. The methodical brilliance of Massive Attack, the mega-cool Kruder & Dorfmeister and of course, the almighty Portishead, had quietly amassed a following that transcended traditional genre affiliation. Whether it through over-architected trip-hop beats, lush atmospherics or soulful longing, those purveyors who knew how to slow down the BPM—and do it well—were some of the most beloved at that time.
Zero 7 carved out a niche for themselves as the dreamy, orchestral cousin of their more sinister sounding contemporaries. So, on their 2006 album The Garden, they brought a then little-known up-and-comer named José González to sing on four of the tracks and participate in the band’s world tour. At the time, González was known for his plaintive and hushed performances, playing whole shows seated without accompaniment. Beyond the obvious challenges of getting a good view of him through a crowded venue in a standing audience, his sets were beautiful to the point of bordering on tedium. Unless you could focus on the nuanced control of his croon, it was hard to fully get enraptured in the music for more than ten minutes or so.
Nestled into the layered and enveloping mastery of Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker’s inspired production, however, his voice fluttered above it all, like a butterfly caught in a mellow breeze. With his time in Zero 7 long in the past, it seems only appropriate that González’s main focus has become his slightly more lively band Junip, composed of fellow Swedes Elias Araya and Tobias Winkerton. Given the supremely subdued presentation of his previous solo outings and the excellence exhibited in Junip’s recent self-titled album, seeing them at Los Angeles institution The Troubadour is as much about curiosity as it is about enjoyment.
Not surprisingly, Junip evokes a similar hypnotic crescendo with each song. González stands front-and-center, lightly strumming out chords while Araya and Winkerton respectively layer out splashy percussion and thick electric piano. González’s voice operates entirely in a smooth, dreamy register, a somewhat unnerving and naturally soothing timbre that has an inherent quality to it on the same level as Ryan Adams. “Rope & Summit” is a solid example of this template, weaving the rhythm and then expanding the flourishes out through song’s finale. “Beginnings” opts for a slower pace aiming for a more somber tone. Later, Fields track “Always” brings the night’s most lively offering, González lightly singing “Turn a deaf ear no matter what they might say / Always / Always” over a syncopated line of percussion.
Similarly, “Your Life, Your Call,” “In Every Direction” and “Line of Fire” construct gorgeous arrays of sound, plucking and stabbing for beauty and a stunning ending. For their encore, “Without You” stuns with mounting inertia and “After All is Said and Done” leans heavily on drum machines. The show is good, and the crowd appears pleased. The presentation is more enrapturing than what González could do with just a solo acoustic set, but the songs, while breathtaking at points, can also be a bit formulaic. There isn’t a ton of dynamic range from one song to the next, and while it’s impossible to imagine the band unleashing a performance of explosive cathartic energy, it still feels like something is missing. The band has the potential to reach for incredible heights, but something here just isn’t quite connecting in any truly exciting way.
All photos by Owen Ela