Filtering by Tag: hardcore

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!)

Absenter

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.

Spoiler

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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Monday record review 3/5/2012: 1.6 Band's self-titled LP

The most intense part of any moving day is inevitably couch-related: this familiar object, one whose multiple functions revolve almost solely around relaxation, becomes a monument to futility as its arms and feet transform into hindrances as a bunch of poor, exhausted saps try in vain to stuff the damn thing up (at least) one flight of stairs, muscles straining under both weight and unnatural angles. Then the process is forgotten until the next move. But afterwards, the requisite pizza and beer are awesome because the calories have been earned lugging and hefting and haggling and positioning—carbs be damned!

Legacies are like that: ultimately rewarding, but heavy, and largely divorced from process. Rather than concentrating on the process, how the current destination was reached, there’s a tendency to sit still, ignoring the twists and turns inherent in any stylistic trajectory.

1.6 Band doesn’t have a huge legacy—this LP, a few singles (including the excellent “The Checkered Past of All Things Present,” released in tandem with some recent shows [all of which I missed, dammit!]) —but what they left is indicative of this love of process and positioning. The music they play is instantly identifiable as hardcore punk, but that identification carries with it some stagnant signifiers: it’s a genre largely more interested in the post-move relaxation than getting the couch up the stairs. The tropes can be heavy and obvious.

Adult Hitler

What 1.6 Band does on their lone LP is take the hardcore signifiers and twist them in such a manner than their music, though familiar, becomes entirely their own. The most “traditional” member of the band is Kevin Egan, whose shouts throughout are strong and sustained. His lyrics, though, are much more sparse / way less didactic than the average Youth. Crew offering, leaving listeners enough space to plug in their own concerns over the provided framework. It’s impossible to discern what he’s talking about, specifically, when he sings, in “Plastic Bags” “who planted the seed? / inside my brain? / It’s gonna take a lifetime / I didn’t have to feel all this pain,” but that’s the point—specificity dictates, and dictation dates. Egan’s lyrics, because of their open-endedness, manage to evolve over time, maintaining relevance through their open-endedness.

There’s a subsect of folks who don’t listen to heavy music for the lyrics, granted. Luckily, everyone in the band is great musically. There isn’t a simple way to explain the band’s music because there’s no one blueprint that they follow. Guitarist Mike Yanicelli often leads with atonal stutters and bends, hiccups full of purposefully placed wrong notes, shrill harmonics. On “Threads,” his quick three-note progression sounds almost metal in delivery before yielding to a more traditional power-chord chorus before the bridge slows and groans under its own weight. Meanwhile, virtuoso drummer Vin Novara (who later played with some ex-Hoover dudes in the underappreciated Crownhate Ruin) puts on a clinic of 32nd notes, fills and rolls which expertly spackle the space left by bass player Lance Jaeger, whose gymnastic playing sometimes drives the song forward and sometimes adds color. Again, there’s no set pattern: at the onset, “Keeping Me From Killing You” is Jaeger’s bass’s show, just as “Threads” was Yanicelli’s. But songs like these, in which one guy seems to be driving, there are shifts—no bogarts here!—and spaces for argument.

The songs are largely in four or eight, but are sufficiently mathy to tilt heads in the pit and, after a few listens, induce new rhythms. In other words, the 1.6 Band wants listeners to be aware of the twists and turns in their heaviness before settling into them. In other words, get ready to do some work before you eat your pizza.

—Mike F.



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Monday record review 2/13/12: "First Four EPs," by Off!

I got home last night at five—less than 48 hours after leaving for New York—and was stunned to see the detritus of my trip planning scattered around the office: book boxes open, drawers, spindles of CDs yet to be burned. It wasn’t the mess that surprised me as much as what comprised it: again, less than two days before I had been prepping for my trip by packing my courier bag full of stuff. And I was back to see the remnants of my post-work haste scattered about as I had left them.

It seemed much longer than two days was the thing.

Sure, I had only spent two nights away, on a couch in a Greenpoint loft which offered an amazing view of the city and a cache of fanzines, of both the paper and VHS varieties. But the relatively glacial pace of the pastoral blurs the time and the perception of it. In the two days, the frantic race to see everyone and do everything taxed me with its pace. Okay: gotta hit all these spots, visit x number of people—and not just hey how’s it going, but like spend quality time—and get from place to place with a minimum of fuss and /or getting lost. Which I feel, largely, was a success, even though a) I completely understand why everyone in the city had an iPhone now—to maximize effectiveness / minimize inefficiency, because efficiency and effectiveness are the dual nature of the beast, even if there’s no art or project of any kind at stake, no career-minded networking, active or passive, and b) the perpetual juggling of priorities and engagements is enormously taxing and takes up a great deal of energy and headspace, despite the fact that everyone around shrugged when I mentioned it and was like “well, that’s how it is.” There was an innate sense of pace, of timing, from my friends in town: a thorough investment with an immediacy dictated by the demands of the calendar: we’ve got two hours, so step on the goddamn gas, man, and fast! There’s ground to be covered before the next engagement!

It’s an immediacy I appreciate, but one that takes a bit of time getting used to.

Which is why I’ve been listening to Off! since my return home.

Panick Attack

Scene fans rejoiced when the band started playing: Keith Morris—Black Flag’s original singer, the frontman of the Circle Jerks—has never had time for bullshit or idiocy. The form—raw, stripped of all pretense and fat—has always been a perfect vehicle for his bilious attacks. And his musical compatriots, no slouches themselves, have only been too happy to provide a musical background for the man’s aggressions. Off!’s stuff has been released incrementally on 7”, the perfect medium for such bombast. The perfection of the medium is emphasized by the collected work, which doesn’t sound like it’s going to be much—under a half-hour—but is: In the same way that my two days were so packed that it feels like I’ve been away for longer, the honesty and anger that shines so intensely in each of the band’s songs, when listened to as a lump sum, makes the appreciation of the band the more remarkable. In addition to feeling all this, and recording all this, Off!, live plays all this, night after night. They sustain their incredibly potent and direct attack, without devices or effects to aid them: incredibly honest, forceful and in-your-face, a rewarding but exhausting experience that feels much longer than it is in the best way possible because so much is packed into so little time. Morris has been at it for longer than many of his fans have been alive, and remains one a touchstone of how it’s done. He sure as hell doesn’t need an iPhone, that’s for sure.

—Mike F.



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