Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

I'm Good, Gone, Down on the Hip -- Jawbox

I've always had an affection for music videos, which has led to the purchase of numerous otherwise-ignored-by-the-public DVDs, and some other oddities. Before I'd really settled into the mode of pursuing b-sides, my purchase of Deftones' B-Sides and Rarities, which naturally compiled its titled objects, was driven by the unmentioned inclusion: all of their music videos on a DVD accompanying those songs. Because I like the band quite a lot (Deftones was one of my few major label modern releases on vinyl for a long time, and still has only a few relatives of that variety, and I was known for my endless listening to White Pony in high school), I did decide to go ahead and listen to the "accompanying" CD (as I saw it, at least).

In the process, I was faced with a good number of remixes, live and acoustic versions, but also a solid number of covers. Deftones were part of what was considered the "nu metal" wave of heavier popular music, but rapidly found the label inappropriate or uncomfortable--and their choices of covers only re-emphasized this. Their performance of the Cure's "If Only Tonight We Could Sleep" from the MTV Icon show for the Cure appears on the disc, surrounded by covers of The Smiths, Cocteau Twins, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Sade. However, the cover I'm bringing all of this up to mention is the one chosen to lead the disc: "Savory."

Of course, that cover is technically just Deftones vocalist Chino Moreno and the band Far, but that's not relevant for where I'm going, which is toward the band from which the song was sourced--Jawbox. When I picked this disc up (near its release seven years ago), even the Cure was only vaguely familiar, Skynyrd through the obvious singles (though not the one covered there--"Simple Man"), and the rest were alien to my ears, though the names rang bells in a way that suggested I ought to know them in the sense of knowing things about music, but I had no clue why, and would easily confuse them with other familiar band names that I had no music to associate with. Jawbox easily fit here, except that I didn't even associate the band's name with a reputation.

"Savory" was probably the standout cover on the album, even if it came from the earlier phase in the Deftones' career, which has remained my least favourite. The song itself, though, is so very unusual that it is at first jarring but rapidly becomes alluring and curious. It starts with a distorted, circling, ringing riff, with a more staccato, muted, and heavier one driving underneath it until an unusual drum beat comes in and the first riff turns to a higher note and circles closer. Chino and Jonah Matranga (I assume) then begin to sing and carry the melody, with harmonized emphases over the near-atonal, repetitive riffing until it spreads apart to single-picked notes that mimic the previous riffs like an echo, but carrying more melody by moving between strings.

Indeed, the instrumentation is all preserved from the original track:

Now, at this time in my life, I was prone to things like realizing this song seemed pretty interesting and good, but not bothering to pursue it any further than that. In fact, I didn't touch the band, and couldn't keep them separate in my mind from Jawbreaker, about whom I'd periodically also hear comments. I'd started to finally listen to the Cure, but that was already planned and half-started, so that was less inspired by this set of covers, and the rest of the bands had yet to push me. I'm only checking into Cocteau Twins as of this last few months, in all honesty.

I was out at a family reunion last year, though, and wandered into a monstrous treasure trove of abandoned CDs at a used book...well, it wasn't a store. It was a whole bloody farm, and it seemed they must grow the product there and harvest it, there was so much. There were tables and tables of CDs, though, many of them orphaned 1990's releases for DJ or other "cut-out"/"remainder" usage, generally promotional in some capacity. They would bear that stamp of "PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY," or the cut in the spine, or a hole through the barcode. I was going through them all one by one, and found myself confused and anxious when I stumbled into one named Jawbox. Certainly this was...probably the band I was trying to remember that apparently I should listen to. I thought. In the end, I culled my crop, but Jawbox stayed in (alongside discs from Al Kooper, Fugazi, Godflesh, The Church, Kyuss, Sloan and Spiritualized), for good or ill, remembered rightly or wrongly.

It was, as it happened, correct, though Jawbox was not the album on which "Savory" appeared. However, it began to make an impression on me very quickly. It opens with "Mirrorful," which has some similar points when placed next to "Savory," but is a lot more openly melodic and catchy:

There's also an actual music video but the uploader has disabled embedding.

This rapidly became one of my most listened albums, satisfying my appreciations for heavy music and the energy and movement that comes from it--Jawbox are technically considered a "post-hardcore" band, though they are more in the Fugazi vein than the modern one that consists of bands like Blood Brothers or Fall of Troy, both of whom I like but would never in my right mind compare to Jawbox musically, my love of melodies, pop and all things catchy, and my appreciation for unusual approaches to instrumentation that aren't emphatic about their peculiarities. Most of the credit here tends to go to J. Robbins, lead vocalist and guitarist (whether lead applies to both of those roles, I'm not going to pretend to declare with confidence one way or the other), but a lot of what I find interesting comes from drummer Zach Barocas.

Jawbox hit some differing tones and moods on their self-titled album, which was released July 2nd in 1996 and became their last full length offering, including the more laidback and easy "Iodine," which is another favourite of mine:

Like most--actually, I think all--tracks, Zach's drumming is very, very unusual. It's not overly complex, ridiculously simple, and not often even polyrhythmic, but it doesn't swing or waltz, it seems to hit some stranger other vein, hinting a bit, perhaps, at the notoriously infectious "pea-soup" (hi-hat then bass drum hit) of disco. It sounds so unusual but so natural, unpredictable but mechanical.

Now, Robbins and Bill Barbot on the two guitars aren't too far off from this in how they play, unpredictable but completely natural and in the right places. Sometimes bizarre and confusing choices if one stops and thinks, but that are produced, played, and written to fit perfectly as one just listens to each song. Their voices are not heavily trained or perfected, but their harmonizing on choruses and the odd verse line fits perfectly with their playing, and Zach's. Kim Coletta's bass isn't anything to sneeze at, acting as the glue between the buzzing float of guitar riffs that feel almost as if they are played on distorted slide guitars (but definitely aren't) and a drum section intent on maintaining its presence, if not outright stealing the spotlight.

Jawbox is one of the bands that made me want to write here. I fell so much in love with that album that I almost immediately went out attempting to find their other albums. Normally this is where I'd either espouse all of them or talk about how nothing could quite touch that first one I heard. The answer is somewhere inbetween, though.

Jawbox started out as part of the Washington, D.C. post-hardcore scene, so, unsurprisingly, they found themselves on Fugazi's own Dischord Records, releasing 1991's Grippe and 1992's Novelty, before they moved to Atlantic's major label distribution for 1994's For Your Own Special Sweetheart and Jawbox in 1996. Those two Dischord albums, though, did have Barbot, Coletta and Robbins, but they did not have Barocas, instead using drummer Adam Wade, who joined Shudder to Think, another D.C. post-hardcore band.

Grippe and Novelty stand out less, whether it's because of the band's comparative inexperience and youth--or because Wade's drumming is less peculiar and muscular, simple and driving alone, I can't say for sure. Those two albums are taking the longest to grow on me, though I find myself finding the variation easier to hear the more I listen to both albums. Still, I think the difference is audible:

"Cutoff" from Novelty

In the end, I definitely have a preference for the Atlantic-era releases, but a lot of that is definitely due to Barocas' drumming, which often cold-opens songs and gives them an immediate sense of the unsual, the unfamiliar and the unexpected. A listen to songs like "Won't Come Off" or "Chinese Fork Tie" from Jawbox makes this abundantly clear, while For Your Own Special Sweetheart has a mix of somewhat standard drumming and this lovely other style (best heard on that album in the re-recorded version of "Motorist," which was first released as a single by Dischord in a different recording--heard below).

Otherwise, the songs just strike that perfect note for me: experimental without being impenetrable, catchy without being obvious, thoughtful without being pretentious and otherwise just properly balanced. I keep wishing or pretending I will somehow discover another Jawbox, but I've yet to find another band that strikes me in anything like the same way. They are a large part of my recent explorations of 1990's "alternative rock" bands (like Shiner and Edsel, the former produced by J. Robbins, the later releasing a split with Jawbox), and I desperately want to hear more from the band that produced these albums, but, well, that's just not in the cards.

Unfortunately, Robbins' immediately following band, Burning Airlines--interestingly, a band that released a split record with At the Drive-In--is less easy to stumble across for some reason I'm unsure of.

I couldn't say who I would recommend this band to, as I'm so in love with them I think everyone should listen to them, but realize that's unrealistic.

Still, for a note of familiarity, and to sort of come full circle, here are two of their covers they recorded, from either end of their career:

"Something Must Break," a Joy Division cover from their first album, Grippe

"Cornflake Girl," a Tori Amos cover from their last album, Jawbox. No, I'm not kidding. Yes, there's actually a video, uploaded by the same person who uploads all of their videos...then disables embedding.
As is often the case with 1990s alternative rock bands of any kind, finding their CDs in a cheap used bin at your local purveyor of used CDs is a happily/sadly easily managed thing. I even snagged the non-album track filled "Savory" EP from one of the local stores out here, having sated the full length release needs via, primarily, good old CD Alley.

I strongly, strongly recommend this band to anyone who likes a band willing to carve its own space and sound out, without sounding like they are desperate to do so.

Please, as well, look into Jawbox on Cello and the For Callum compilation. Proceeds go directly to J. and his wife for the care of their son Callum who was diagnosed with Type 1 SMA. Jawbox on Cello is also available through Bandcamp in digital (and physical!) form here.


  1. I'm a huge Jawbox fan as well, and am always happy to see people still writing about them and appreciating them. I'd highly recommend checking out J.'s other bands - Burning Airlines, Channels (who released an LP, EP and a song on the "For Callum" comp., and who I think are just as great as Jawbox), the Rollkicker Laydown 7", and J.'s current band Office of Future Plans, who recently released their first full-length.

  2. Yeah, I really want to hear Burning Airlines in particular--so thanks for clarifying what other bands of his to check out, too, as I had not yet grasped which could actually be pursued. Good to know that stuff, as I'd noticed a rather large number of band names associated with him.

    Cheers to you for that!


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