Springfield, Illinois’ ambitious sons and rising stars The Junior Varsity have released their third album in four years, Cinematographic, and if you’ve never heard of them until recently, just know this: they are not your average emo rock group. Their often sophisticated sound can be traced back to a broad range of influences, from their peers to classic rock of yesteryear.
Many fans and critics alike agree that 2004’s debut The Great Compromise, which was released on a small, startup label (British Records), was an amazing accomplishment with impressive musicianship for a young band, and had them compared to the likes of Alkaline Trio and Jimmy Eat World. Since forming in 2002, the quintet have literally grown from boys to men, as they are nearing their mid-20s now.
In 2005 though, second effort Wide Eyed, their first for Victory Records, had its moments (including some where The Police influences manifest itself), but was more or less viewed as a step back from their debut.
Now, seemingly everyone is excited for TJV’s new record, and keyboardist/saxophonist Nick Dodson thinks so highly of Cinematographic that in a recent press release he considered it to be “leaps-and-bounds better” than Wide Eyed, “in terms of the musicianship, songwriting and melodies.” This critic is inclined to agree.
After a couple of spins of the album, it’s not too hard to realize that The Junior Varsity really is a cut above their contemporaries. Sure, they use power chords at-will, but the song arrangements are never dull, sometimes prog rock-ish, and would definitely give Guitar World transcribers long nights at a time, as guitarists Andy Wildrick and Sergio Coronado constantly riff and phrase their way through verses, choruses, breakdowns, all the way to the end of many songs (check out “Under The Radar,” “Lifted,” “The Greatest”). This doesn’t always translate into memorable songs (“The Importance of Being Important”), but there are plenty of those on this album, and producer Mike Watts (Hopesfall, As Tall As Lions) no doubt had a hand in bringing out the best in TJV here.
On “I Went Blind,” the song’s intro and Chris Birch’s powerhouse drumming recalls the Foo Fighters at first. Sunny, jittery (electric) guitar, acoustic guitar phrases and vibes quiet things down for the verses, and the chorus gets the multiple vocal treatment; its mid-level and high but not whiny pitches sound a bit like Dashboard Confessional. But again, no whiny emo here. “The Sky!” sports psychedelic flourishes, along with flashy and artful hard rock riffs.
At the start of “St. Louis,” bass player/singer Asa Dawson’s vocals instantly recall John Linnell (of They Might Be Giants), but soon enough, the quirky, jangly feel of the track evolves into what the band considers a Say Anything-meets-The Strokes rocker. Which is to say the track mixes slightly distorted guitars over a toe-tappin’ rhythm section with several bursts of heavier riffs and short solos. Thus, it makes for a damn good power pop number.
Listening to “The Greatest” – not a Cat Power cover – makes you understand why the band has toured with the likes of Panic! At The Disco, as Dawson’s voice climbs pretty high during the chorus. However, TJV’s pure, raw hard rock instincts kick into high gear near the end as Dawson sings of Armageddon: “Don’t worry about the signs/This world is coming to an end I think we all know”. The song’s furious, kickass closing riffs are headbanger-worthy, though its start-stop tempos may mess with your head, should you try.
The back-to-back-to-back tracks “Memory Made Easy,” “Try To Define,” and title track “Cinematographic” highlight and sum up everything TJV is about. “Memory Made Easy” is a lovely acoustic-based and dare I say Jimmy Page-influenced instrumental, complete with light keyboard work and cello. Stunning in its beauty and technically proficient in its execution, this is without a doubt my favorite song on the record. “Try To Define,” with its pretty, ascending and descending guitar and piano lines in the verses and a punk-inspired chorus is another standout emo-pop song. And perhaps different than anything TJV has tried before is the swinging track “Cinematographic,” a softer, jazz-edged tune featuring Dodson on saxophone. The fact that a band like The Junior Varsity can pull off tracks as varied as those three in the course of one album is quite an accomplishment.
Overall, Cinematographic and its rockin’, mostly guitar-based (no offense to Dodson) work of art gives you the type of hope and excitement for this genre of rock that Hot Rod Circuit once did. Though it’s not perfect, it’s close (4 out of 5 stars) and very highly recommended.