A tale of two halves
JR JR’s new album, Invocations/Conversations is in many ways a tale of two halves. It’s not just the fact that the release is essentially a double LP separated into two records (Invocations being one and Conversations the other). It’s also the up-and-down, Jekyll and Hyde nature of this record. The duo seems torn between two sounds—one that’s simple, reflective and moving, and another that’s sleek and arguably overproduced. The quality of this release lies somewhere between these two extremes, but it’s hard to ignore the feeling of whiplash from these two opposing sounds.
Invocations comes first, and it’s a solid standalone record. It incorporates some of the band’s pop tendencies with a more grounded, stripped-down sound, which makes for a much more fulfilling listening experience. Even songs like “Twice As Hard” that firmly walk the line of pop and R&B manage to do so carefully and retain the emotive, expressive nature inherent in the other songs on Invocations. “Day In Day Out” is a catchy pop tune that’s perhaps better suited to Conversations, but it’s an undeniably fun track.
“All Around You” is a feel-good summer tune that is quintessential JR JR, while incorporating a catchy melody, interesting transitions, and unique instrumentation. “Pull You Close” and “Holding On” present a dialed-back, reserved take on JR JR’s sound, and the results are two of the album’s best tracks. “Holding On” in particular stands out for its soulful, emotive vocal performance by singer Joshua Epstein.
Longtime fans of JR JR may find the second half of the record, Conversations, to be more aligned with their expectations. However, it’s also where some of the issues on Invocations/Conversations become apparent.
That’s not to say Conversations doesn’t have some solid tunes and fun moments, because it does. Opener “NYC” finds Epstein positing that “the center of the universe is boring” and that “NYC is coming at you/lock your doors.” That outro refrain registers as a fun, playful and self-aware signal to the listener.
“Big Bear Mountain” is another standout track— arguably the album’s best—that showcases what JR JR is capable of. Replacing synth pop riffs with a somber piano melody and trading in summer club hits for singer-songwriter ballads, it’s the most human and vulnerable that Epstein and bandmate Daniel Zott appear on Invocations/Conversations.
Despite these heights that Conversations reaches occasionally, they’re interspersed with songs that can be overly sleek and effect-heavy. Of course, those things are to be expected from an indie-pop/synthpop group, but at times it seems the band just goes a bit too far with modulation. Epstein’s excellent vocal performances are at times made robotic by an over-reliance on auto-tune and other vocal effects. And some choruses on Conversations—such as those found in “Low” and “Dumb Myself Down”—are ruined by simply adding too many bells and whistles. The overuse of modulation effects to accent the chorus starts to feel gimmicky, and otherwise solid tunes are knocked down a peg.
This phenomenon is made doubly frustrating by songs like “Young Forever,” which share the same summer club-hit vibe—which may or may not be to your taste—but show restraint by not getting lost in modulation and effects. They retain the happy, carefree tonality one might expect from a synth-pop song without becoming a slave to genre tropes.
Invocations/Conversations is an ambitious effort, and JR JR deserves to be praised for it. It’s not only two full albums, but the band attempts to simultaneously balance two very different sounds throughout. And although this is done to varying degrees of success, the very act of trying is admirable. Overall, it has its flaws, but it is a fun and engaging listen for fans of indie/synth-pop.