On their first two albums, jj established themselves as a less menacing version of the Knife. Relying heavily on liquid steel drums and echoing timpanis, vocalist Elin Kastlander and bandmate Joakim Benon excelled at producing a lethargic, tropical strain of house music, effectively moving the Knife’s twisting, icy soundscapes to the beach. The duo’s third album, V, sheds some of the malleable qualities of n° 2 and n° 3 in favor of a more structured, symphonic touch.
Though V borrows much from its predecessors’ spacey, childlike fantasias, it also boasts grander arrangements and other conventional pop elements. Kastlander, however, is not a pop singer: On prior releases, her voice billowed in and out of the sonic smoke clouds, its sleepy qualities serving as a natural complement to the music’s formless synths. The band’s melodies have crystallized on V, and rather than hiding under a heavy rain of mallet instruments and generous reverb, Kastlander is out in the open, her voice largely unadorned. The strain of taking on a more central role shows on pieces like “I,” where Kastlander provides a slow and tired drawl over the faintly bubbling backing track, as well as “Fågelsången,” which drags to the finish line as her relatively thin, fluctuating voice struggles to produce a cappella harmonies.
Fortunately, Kastlander’s growing pains are offset by the compelling peculiarities of jj’s evolving sound. Like fellow worldbeat auteurs Gang Gang Dance, Kastlander and Benon synthesize a multitude of genres and styles, from African folk music and Balearic beat to calypso and new age, into nebulous concoctions that are as bizarre as they are lush. The shimmering “Dynasti” layers ricocheting synths over classically arranged strings and tribal percussion, while “When I Need You” is a sweet, sepia-toned ode to true love that trades in its balladic opening for pounding heartbeat rhythms and pitch-shifted harmonies. “All Ways, Always” starts as a paean to soft grunge with its tenderly strummed distortion, then explodes into a treble-spiked arctic vision. V is almost cinematic, conjuring up rich, kaleidoscopic vistas as the band transforms from stoned-out beach bums to wide-eyed globetrotters.