Initial Reactions (2011): The Civil Wars, Foster The People, Office Of Future Plans

Foster The People – Torches – (–): This all sounds ready made for either an Apple commercial or a Grey’s Anatomy promo, and it sports as much originality as you would expect from a band that is essentially re-writing "Young Folks" multiple times. After all, the clown behind this madness used to write jingles, and while there’s nothing wrong with that per se, it’s extremely telling this case. I detect cynical devils masked as beings of lite. I detect self-aware, formulaic, soulless songwriting. I thought maybe – just maybe – I would find something like Steely Dan: The Next Generation. Instead, I got Justin Beiber: The Old Dudes.

Office Of Future Plans – Office Of Future Plans – (ind): This is J. Robbins’ third post-Jawbox outfit, and not much has changed. Sure, a cello figures prominently, but for the most part, these sound exactly like the signature angular riffs that you’d expect. I don’t know exactly what I was hoping for, but I guess it all just seems a bit ho-hum. Short on inspiration and concept, ya know? Hey, where’s Barbot when you need him? ("Salamander")

The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow – (++): I’ve heard so many rave reviews of this band and how they are God’s gift to music that at this point I am pre-disposed to vehemently hating them. (Actually, I’m not that much of an a-hole, but you know what I’m saying). That being said, I think it’s good stuff. I’m not convinced of their greatness, but I will say that "I’ve Got This Friend" (for example) sports a nice mix of playful and melodic elements in a Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac sort of way. One thing: they over-sing, which makes it a teeny bit burdensome for frequent listens. Basically, think of The Swell Season via Nashville. Fair enough. We’ll see where the next album goes. ("I’ve Got A Friend", "C’est La Mort")

REACTION KEY

[!!!!!]: Enthusiastic. Frequent rotation. A buyer. Contender for year’s best.
[++]: Positive. Good stuff. Possible grower?
[ind]: Indifferent.. Underwhelmed. I don’t expect to come back to this one.
[—]: Negative. A real screw-up. Don’t even bother.

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Career In Brief: Jawbox

photo_rcol_ja_orangeINTRODUCTION

Jawbox were a DC area melodic post-punk act led by J. Robbins. Beginning as a three piece in 89/90, the band toured under the radar during the underground music revolution of 91/92. When the band added Bill Barbot as a second vocalist and guitar player around the same time, they laid the groundwork for the resounding success that was Novelty. 1994’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart found them on a major label, with the execs probably trying to position them to be the "next Nirvana", but FYOSS, while the band’s masterpiece in its own right (and one of the greatest post-punk records ever), didn’t achieve the success they and others were hoping. With that, they tried to smooth away the rough edges on their next eponymous album, but all that managed to do for them was disappoint the critics. They called it quits around 1997, and released a collection of rarities in 1998. Barbot and Robbins went on to form Burning Airlines, which released 2 excellent (if less melodic and more art-punk) LP’s around the turn of the century. Bassist Kim Coletta and drummer Zach Barocas both went on to non-musical careers in other fields.

MAIN RELEASES

Jawbox EP (1990) – [B]: Meat and potatoes post-hardcore. ["Tools & Chrome"] (my review)

Grippe (1991) – [C+]: Undercooked, but signs of promise. ["Freezerburn"] (my review)

Novelty (1992) – [A]: Who knew hardcore could be so beautiful? ["Static"] (my review)

For Your Own Special Sweetheart (1994) – [A]: A masterpiece, a brilliant set of tunes. ["Cooling Card"] (my review)

Jawbox (1996) – [B-]: Band leans radio-friendly, gets ignored, breaks up. Not bad though. ["Iodine"] (my review)

My Scrapbook Of Fatal Accidents (1998): There are some highlights here for sure (the Peel session, although it’s sort of a sub-par Peel session, with nothing new for the fan), their cover of Tar’s "Static", and rarities like "Apollo Amateur" and "Under Glass." Hey, there’s even a cover of The Cure’s "Meathook", which would be great in just about any form. You could even make a case for their cover of the R.E.M. obscurity "Low." Overall though, this is exactly what it’s supposed to be and nothing more, a clearing of the archives for a short-lived great.

OTHER

The two tracks from the "Tongues" single (now found at the end of most versions of Novelty) should not be missed, especially the title track, as it features Bill Barbot on lead vocals and is one of the best things the band recorded. Also, the 3 tracks from the Savory + 3 EP ("68", "Lil Shaver", and "Sound on Sound") are all keepers, but esp. "68". You can find them now on the FYOSS reissue. Also, their cover of Tori Amos’ “Cornflake Girl” is cool, regardless of what Amos’ own fans will probably tell you.

VIDEO

“Savory” official video
”FF=66” live on Jimmy Fallon (reunited in 2009)

Quick Review (LP): Jawbox by Jawbox

Jawbox
Jawbox
Atlantic/TAG; 1996

My Rating: B-

Best Tracks: “Mirrorful”, “Iodine”, “Spoiler”, “Absenter”, “Desert Sea”

There are at least 5 great tracks on Jawbox‘s self-titled fourth album (see above). Unfortunately, the rest of the album’s songs come off like throwbacks to their early days (Grippe-era) or FM radio pandering, and the production is so sexed up and snappy that it robs Jawbox of the mighty noise that made For Your Own Special Sweetheart such a triumph. Just listen. Barocas’ drums sounds like firecrackers rather than bombs awash with sonic salvation, and Kimmy’s bass sounds tinny and flat, like something off of a Limp Bizkit record (no disrespect to her actual playing). And the songs? Take “Chinese Fork Tie” for example. The big rock chorus is awkward and goofy, especially executed by a band with as much substance as Jawbox. And the slick, cherubic background vocals on “Excandescent”? When you’ve got the vocal chemistry that Robbins and Barbot share, why go that route? In hindsight, I’m not sure if the band was trying to deliver a pop smash, trying a new direction, or something else. The eponymous album title this late in a career is usually not a good sign, and I think it’s an indicator of why this album fell flat as a whole, and also perhaps why it was their last. Not withstanding the handful of truly brilliant tracks, it looks like the inspiration was running dry.

AMG review
My review of For Your Own Special Sweetheart
My review of Novelty
My review of Grippe
My review of their first EP
”Mirrorful” music theory write-up from the Hooks blog

Quick Review (LP): For Your Own Special Sweetheart by Jawbox

jawbox for your own special sweetheart Jawbox
For Your Own Special Sweetheart
Atlantic; 1994

My Rating: A

Best Tracks: “FF=66”, “Savory”, “Breathe”, “Cooling Card”, “Whitney Walks”

The only problem with Novelty was the production. All I can say is that it sounded a bit off, sort of glossed and imbalanced. The drums, for example, popped with too much pizzazz. The guitars came off a little too metal. All that has been remedied on For Your Own Special Sweetheart, apparently by the efforts of Fugazi-standby producer Ted Nicely. With his assistance, the band made the defining Jawbox experience, an album that captures the band in all of their gorgeous, hyper-melodic dissonance. Everything – and I mean everything – about this record brims with sonic glory. The choruses are fist-pumpingly mighty, the drums and bass are pummeling and full, and the guitars are explosive and razor-sharp. The only drawback, and it is minor, is that the best material seems to be packed into the record’s first half. Still, it could just be that tracks 1-6 are so strong that nothing could compare, and to be honest, “Chicago Piano”, “U-Trau”, and “Whitney Walks” are all pretty amazing anyway. There’s no doubt in my mind that Sweetheart is one of the great post-punk records, and certainly Jawbox’s masterpiece. It’s a record that deserves to be listened to on full blast, so pop it in, crank it up, and savor every second.

Wikipedia article
Pitchfork review
AMG review

Quick Review (LP): Novelty by Jawbox

jawbox novelty Jawbox
Novelty
Dischord; 1992

My Rating: A

Best Tracks: “Cutoff”, “Static”, “Tracking”, “Channel 3”

Bill Barbot joins the crew, and greatness is unleashed. The progression from Grippe to Novelty is without a doubt one of the most remarkable in the history of rock and roll. Between albums, the band learned how to harness massive feedback walls, wrote a killer set of songs, and slowed things down just enough to nail you in the gut. “Cutoff” is so good that they re-wrote it on their 4th LP, “Channel 3” leans heavily on the muscular pop that was starting to rock the mainstream, and “Static” is quite simply an amazing tune. The dueling vocal attack of Robbins and Barbot is something to behold as well, creating a sort of hypnotic effect that’ll suck you in. But it’s the emotional arc of the songwriting that makes Novelty such a giant leap. The highs are galactic, the lows are subterranean. Novelty is one massive moment of greatness, one of the greatest post-hardcore records of all time, and deserves to be cherished by you.

AMG review
Wikipedia article
Punk Mecca review

Quick Review (LP): Grippe by Jawbox

jawbox grippe Jawbox
Grippe
Dischord; 1991

My Rating: C+

Best Tracks: “Freezerburn”, “Impossible Figure”, “Consolation Prize”, “Bullet Park”

Grippe starts out promising enough with the double-header “Freezerburn” and “Impossible Figure”, but quickly slips into mediocrity, as if the band tried to pump out its debut LP before they’d really fleshed out a full set of truly worthy songs. The riffs are all a little too chunky and the production sounds altogether amateurish. It’s clear the band hadn’t quite identified that which would become its sound. While this initial misstep is easily forgotten due to the quality of the band’s later output, it is revealing to see where the band was prior to the addition of Bill Barbot. There’s little sense of the technocratic/technophobic ambiance they would embrace on later recordings, although about half the songs hint at the latent melodic ability of J. Robbins. Verdict: this suffers from the “what is this thing called post-hardcore supposed to sound like?” syndrome that seemed so common for DC bands in the late 80’s, so don’t dive into this record expecting something great. The place to start is Novelty, and then on through to Sweetheart and the last one. After you’ve been through the 3 latter LP’s, drop by and give this one a quick look, if only to catch a glimpse of the ‘box’s humble beginnings.

AMG review
Wikipedia article

Quick Review (EP): Jawbox EP by Jawbox

jawbox ep Jawbox
Jawbox EP
Dischord/Desoto/Slamdek; 1990

My Rating: B

Best Tracks: “Tools & Chrome”, “Bullet Park”

Jawbox didn’t really hit their stride until Novelty, and this, their earliest release, suffers a bit from a meat-and-potatoes aesthetic blandness. That’s not really a major complaint though, because the performances are energetic and full of conviction. Everything here rocks with a truly youthful abandon, and Robbins’ guitar work is already beginning to shine with that razor’s edge manic grace that he would perfect later on. “Tools & Chrome” hits hardest, but don’t miss “Bullet Park”, which was released as an extra track on the Slamdek-released cassette. “Twister” also begins to hint at the frantic melodicism they would embrace on later releases. Worth a pitstop for devotees.

Allmusic review
Slamdek write-up (very in-depth, don’t miss it)