I should admit right up front that I look with skepticism upon an album featuring a 15-year-old girl. It’s simply that I don’t expect the music to be aimed at (nor of any great appeal to) the particular demographic to which I belong.
“Yeah, well, buddy, that’d be your loss,” the universe seems to tell me as I place Juniper into my CD player. Juniper Shelley sings straightforward pop tunes that are rich in melody, and that suggest the influence of both pre-Beatles Brill Building girl group music and punk pop of the Ramones/Shonen Knife variety.
All of which is to say that there’s a sticky-sweet bubblegum vibe to the songs on Shelley’s self-titled debut. Shelley’s unadorned yet note-perfect voice is the perfect vehicle for the record’s simple songs of teenage concerns. And she’s aided in her creative pursuits by some class-A talent. Her dad Michael Shelley produced and wrote most of the songs. Juniper has a co-write on “Girls Just Want a Boy to Rest Their Head Upon,” which sounds like it could have been lifted from the soundtrack of That Thing You Do! (Higher praise I cannot imagine.)
The players include Reigning Sound’s Dave Amels, underrated pop auteur Jay Gonzalez (also of Drive By Truckers), Mekons’ Steve Goulding, Dennis Diken of the Smithereens, Don Fleming, Fountains of Wayne’s Chris Collingwood, Marshall Crenshaw and other rock/pop luminaries, all of whom take the project very seriously. Juniper mostly sticks to vocals, though she plays keys and flute on one track.
The winning-est track is the single, “Sticking With My Henry,” but Juniper doesn’t have any weak tunes. Before her passing, the Muffs’ Kim Shattuck co-wrote the funny and delightful “Poke Your Eye Out” for Juniper, and “Punk Rock Boy” was penned by Teenage Fanclub’s Francis McDonald.
The cover art is nice enough, but it’s the image accompanying the track “Boys! Boys! Boys! Boys! Boys!” (see left) that captures the innocence and unalloyed joie de vivre of the album.
Juniper is a lovely record that doesn’t pretend to be more than it is. What it is, in the end, is a highly enjoyable collection of timeless pop songs sung, arranged and played with verve, wit and– no doubt – smiles on the faces of all concerned. Listen, and you’ll smile too.