Monday record review 4/23/2012: Jawbox, s/t (1996)
Until recently, the idea of the second act was inconceivable—artists and bands got one shot, did what they had to do, and that was it. That’s in the eyes of the big time, though. Fans of “indie”—whatever that means these days—know that bands can make a viable go of it without becoming blinded by limelight. But during the feeding frenzy that followed Nirvana, the idea of viability became skewed. Let’s face it: most artists, no matter their discipline, don’t make a living from their art. Doing so is a tremendous accomplishment. Yet the popular notion of success calls making a living into question, to the point where eking it out but not working a day job on the regular isn’t enough to qualify. There’s gotta be opulence, names in lights, articles, exposure—bullshit, basically.
The narrative surrounding Jawbox involves Making the Leap: they and DC brethren Shudder to Think both made the leap from Dischord to the majors at about the same time. I remember being really worried about these signings (and later, Jawbreaker’s) when I was twenty. Like really worried, to an extent that cracks me up, now that I’ve, you know, had a job and paid rent. I was worried because the party line told me I had to be. It was all part of the mythical land of Selling Out, which, honestly, is nobody’s business but the artist in question.
I’m sure we can all agree that the whole “sellout” discussion becomes less and less relevant as artists now have to acclimatize to a marketplace which is shifting its values— it’s now about the live show, and about selling songs where and when you can to make some dough. Commercials? No problem now—in fact, a target now, whereas in the past such behavior would cause frothing dissent from the crusties and the trusties alike. (We had scene unity the whole time and we just never knew it! X up, y’all!)
What I’m getting at here, of course, is that in Jawbox’s case, the jump forced a shift in narrative. Such fuss was made over their leap that their music was lost in the shuffle. For Your Own Special Sweetheart, their 1994 Atlantic debut, got some press, and rightly so—with an increased budget, the band was able to overcome the muddy production which marred the great songwriting on 1992’s Novelty and put out a record which remains one of the best records of the nineties, a perfect combination of melody, dissonance, and unexpected songwriting twists.
But the second act—or at least the perception of such an act—kept the band’s eponymous swansong from getting the recognition it deserved. Because Sweetheart did so well–because the band, the narrative went, Beat the Odds and Maintained Their Integrity in the Face of the Corporate Ogre—following up their major label debut wasn’t part of the story.
The fact of the matter is that nothing changed. Sure, the band got a budget, and yeah, Zach Barocas replaced Adam Wade before Sweetheart came out. That’s not what I’m talking about. Despite the deal and the weird-but-cool window dressings that came with it—remember that photoshoot in Details? Or when they played on Conan O’Brien?—all the band did, throughout their career, was progress. That’s the real narrative, despite the way that the deal is often framed as being End of Act One.
Chinese Fork Tie
Like I said, Sweetheart is a complete stunner, and how do you follow up a complete stunner? In Jawbox’s case, you keep doing what you did before: relying on expected shifts, jagged edges, and the mast of tunefulness that unites the disparate elements together. In most cases, this mast comes vocally in the form of J. Robbins, whose lyrics and vocal lines propel the band through the rough seas they joyfully inflicted on listeners. Nowhere is this more evident than on “Chinese Fork Tie,” a smorgasboard of riffs and textures bound up by Robbins’ off-time tirade. The dual guitars and backing vocals of J. Robbins and Bill Barbot interlock throughout, as on “Spoiler,” presenting a whole greater than the sum of already substantial parts.
Progression also comes in the band’s full integration of Zach Barocas’s beats. He’s one of the most consistently inventive ‘90s punk drummers I can think of (along with Amy Farina of the Evens / Warmers and Sara Lund of Unwound), and on Jawbox he puts on a clinic: the aforementioned “Chinese Fork Tie” boasts an amazingly odd and insistent backbeat which largely manages to avoid emphasizing the “rock” hits. “Desert Sea” is another such number, a prototypically explosive exercise in difficult dynamism made easy. Bassist Kim Coletta not only manages throughout to make sense of Barocas’s neo-jazz thwack, but acts, as all good bass players to, as the translator, teaching the listener how to hear the rhythm.
Jawbox is an album which gets nowhere near as much attention as it deserves, partially because its precedent was heaped with so many accolades. But part of it’s the false narrative, the idea that following up an amazing record with another strong effort isn’t important because of the slaying of the corporate dragon or whatever lame story idea the glossies foisted on the public. It’s more the arc than the story around the arc.
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