"Just Us" has its good points and bad points -- there were times during the album that I literally got goosebumps all over, and there were times when I wished they had done things differently. Individually, the album is strong -- there are more than a few stand-out songs in terms of arrangement, performance and composition. But as an album, a cohesive group of songs, there are a few points that I wish had been tackled better.
My first issue with the LP is the production quality. After strong releases from Jaejoong and Yoochun I wasn't expecting this to be a problem, but the material on "Just Us" is the kind that demands top-tier production quality. These are strong pop songs, but because of the flimsy production a lot of things sound very thin, and explosions don't explode into gloriousness. Take "새벽 두시 반" -- it's a gorgeous melody, but when the chorus explodes all the instruments sound so thin and there's no depth to it because the bass line is practically non-existent. This is a problem because material like this, and voices like JYJ's, deserve production that will bring out those melodies, those strong arrangements and capable vocals. I think they were going for an "advertising mix," which is basically vocals overpowering everything, and it makes sense for JYJ but honestly even with a mix like that the quality is what matters -- and that's where it fails. No matter how strong a front JYJ's vocals give, if what's supporting them falls short everything falls short.
The second issue I have is the choice of repertoire, and the variety of sounds on "Just Us." Sure almost all of the tracks got five out of five from me when I first heard the LP, but there's very little variety when you look at the songs as a collective. All the songs have strong melodies, but they can grouped into three distinct groups -- the R&B-influenced songs, the boy band staples (complete with harmonies) and the solo songs. There is hardly any dynamics to the listening experience, which also means that songs have a harder time standing out. Ballads stand out in a sea of up tempos and vice versa, but when you have four songs that sound exactly the same coupled with another three it gets harder to differentiate. The songs are great on their own, but as a collective it's hard for them to stand their ground and establish individuality. They took the concept of "cohesion" just a bit too far -- what is ideal is a balance, tracks that are individually and collectively strong. In the case of "Just Us," they fell flat on the collective.
"Back Seat" is underwhelming to say the least. JYJ make the song, their vocals are the best part, but aside from that there's little else. I'm not used to hearing the three of them all in one song anymore, but they do sound good -- probably the best they've ever sounded as JYJ. Jaejoong's voice is high-pitched but not whiny, Yoochun's vocals are lightyears better than how he did on "Nine" because he actually has some power and body now, and Junsu, well, it's not really a surprise since he's been very active in music like this. The entire song has a "silky" quality to it -- smooth melody, a string section, JYJ's slick vocals -- but to me the chorus lacks some kick. The verses have that thumping bass, but the chorus is so one-dimensional that everything gets lost in each other, like I'm listening to an undercooked cake -- you have to really pay attention to what's happening to find the good points. For a lead single that's not practical, because it has to be able to catch a listener's attention at any given point. I wouldn't mind listening to "Back Seat" again, but I won't go out of my way to -- there are much better tracks on the album.
One of the songs that's affected by the sub-par production is "Letting Go" but production aside, I like it -- it's a slick song with a surprisingly strong melody. The sweeping notes really bring out their vocals, and the harmonies remind you that this is, in fact, a JYJ album. As a song alone it definitely does a good job of balancing style and substance -- but again, it's a shame that they didn't put as much effort into the production as they did on the melody. "Letting Go" would sound so much better with a thumping bass line and crisper percussion, and not the soggy-sounding instrumentation it has now.
What I personally love about "Just Us" is the fact that it has all these 90s/early 2000s boy band staples, like "DAD,YOU THERE?". The swoon-worthy harmonies, the vocal gymnastics snuck in between simple yet show-stopping melodies, the piano hooks, the key change at the last chorus -- I'll take everything. While "DAD,YOU THERE?" sounds like it's straight out of "Music Of The Heart," "So So" sounds more like a Korean boy band staple -- I love it, I love all of it. "So So" has these gorgeous sweeping melodies, more harmonies, and lots of vocal relays going on between the three, really taking advantage of the fact that they're a three-piece again.
"LET ME SEE" is the staple Korean ballad given a nice twist -- the melodies and the very Western boy band harmonies complement the melodramatic verses well. It was a good idea to go with minimal instrumentation, and it's clear now that one of the main instrumental motifs of the entire album is that piano-strings combination, which I have no objections to. "LET ME SEE" is a nice show-off song, and a very pleasant listen. But the production quality also affects the vocals to a certain extent. This particular production stresses the individuality of the vocal lines, which is the right choice for solos and most of the songs because it emphasizes JYJ's strengths. But when it comes to harmonies the production needs to make the harmonies sound like caramel -- silky but extremely rich. These harmonies, while technically-proficient, are held back by the flimsy production. JYJ may be a three-piece, but they're not incompetent and they're definitely capable of strong harmonies.
I like "BABOBOY" as an album track, but I don't think this could be a lead single. It's another one of the classic boy band tracks though -- strong, sweeping melodies despite being the "slick uptempo"-type. I especially like the middle eight -- it's one glorious punch after the other, and it transitions smoothly to the last chorus, complete with Junsu's belting. They handled the end very well too, in standard boy band performance-ready fashion -- the instrumentation stops and the melody ends with a harmony. Little details like that really make the song and reinforce the presence of their influences, so I'm very pleased with this track. The only thing missing is a key change after the middle eight!
"CREATION" definitely has a (conceptual) place in the LP, but beside something like "BABOBOY," tight arrangement and gripping melody and all, "CREATION" seems a bit weak. It's very mid-2000s American pop with the eerie piano line and subtly epic, slightly emo/goth chorus -- if this had a video, it would be in some abandoned Victorian house and they'd all be in tail coats running after a girl in a flawy, white dress and bright red lips. It's not a bad track, but a song that doesn't revolve around the melody isn't very apt considering that the production quality isn't up to standard -- and yet again, "CREATION" is one of those songs that doesn't work as well as it could have because the production falls flat. The verses are fine, but when the chorus hits there isn't enough body to that epic melodrama so the arrangement ends up sounding weak, which creates a bigger divide between the melodic line and the instrumentation. The production team should have emphasized the string section and created more body in the percussion line to really drive home the eerie, epic quality of the song.
So we end with the English song, "VALENTINE" -- the infamous Chris Brown track. It's very JT, JoJo, (dare I say Beyonce?) mid/late 2000s pop. It's slick, powerful R&B-influenced pop -- I was just waiting for the brass line to jump out. The short bursts of melody throughout are hit-or-miss -- sometimes they sound good like during the chorus, but other times they just sound disjointed. It's like everyone's eager to get things over with so they're just rushing through the song -- there is fast-paced, and then there is scampering that doesn't leave listeners any room to savor or process what's happening. The drum line is sharp, yes, but it's so repetitive that it gets grating halfway through the song. "VALENTINE" isn't a horrible song -- but it's stylistically dated, not very well-done, and not the kind of song that ends the album on a strong front. (It's much better than the travesty that was "Ayy Girl" though!)
Stand-outs: "Dear J", "BABOBOY"
Favorites: "DAD,YOU THERE?", "So So", "7살", "새벽 두시 반"
Least Favorites: "서른..", "BACK SEAT"
Over-all rating: 4.1/5