Jawbox were an indie rock band that existed from 1989 – 1997. This is an overview of and personal reflection on their discography.
Jawbox were a hard rock band from the DC area, a product of the same local scene that produced Fugazi and Dismemberment Plan amongst many others (and many notable).
I think I probably first became aware of them around 1992 or 1993, probably as a result of their having played a show in Louisville. Though I wouldn’t have been at that show, I probably saw show flyers with the name Jawbox, maybe even some kids wearing t-shirts, and thought “that’s an interesting name”. I still have no idea what a “jawbox” actually is to this day. Something you put dentures in? I digress…
Jawbox produced four albums and a number of non-album tracks which are mostly compiled on the posthumous collection My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents. Of their albums, 2 are indie classics (“indie” used in the spiritual sense here), 1 mediocre, and 1 – well, one is maybe a deserved classic but I’m conflitced about it. See below.
While I wouldn’t call Jawbox one of my favorite bands, going back and reviewing these records has surely renewed my appreciation for them and raised their estimation a few notches in my mind. I’d call them a great band of their era. They are also notable for producing Burning Airlines from their ashes, a band I’ll definitely be covering in another post in the not too distant future.
Jawbox’s first LP doesn’t grab me the same way their later records do, and that probably has a lot to do with the absence of Bill Barbot, who did so much to round out the band’s sound on later records. However, even Robbins sounds like he hadn’t quite grown into his own by this point. All in all, Grippe comes off a bit generic and dated, like you’re just listening to any old hard rock record from an underground band, and there are few memorable moments. If this was the only record Jawbox had produced, we probably wouldn’t be talking about them today. (“Bullet Park”)
What a difference a year (and Bill Barbot) makes! Everything just sounds like a big step up here: the songs, the hooks, the melodies, the production, the vocals, the playing. Novelty is the kind of “great leap forward” second record that few bands have pulled off (the only one I can think of is Radiohead from Pablo Honey to The Bends), the stylistic leap from “just another band” status to “wow, this band is great!” status. As far as I’m concerned, Novelty achieves stone-cold classic levels of stone-cold-classic-ness. (“Cutoff”, “Static”, “Channel 3”)
For Your Own Special Sweetheart (1994)
Yep, it’s their masterpiece. Everything’s wired right here on the Jawbox front, the sound of Novelty kicked into maximum overdrive. “FF=66” blasts full throttle right out of the gate, so loud and aggressive and raw and beautiful in all of its glorious cacophony. I’d call every track great here, from “Savory” to “Cooling Card” to “Whitney Walks”, every last one of them, at every step, defined by this sharply angular grace. I think that’s what Jawbox proves on this record – that utterly emotive and human sound coupled with all the precision of a fighter jet. The guitars and bass just sound amazing. And what’s that? A new drummer? Yep, Barocas sounds great too. Word was they “sold out” to make this record, but I guess that’s the price of greatness. Given the result, I know which side of that debate I’d favor. For Your Own Special Sweetheart is passionate rock and roll, firing on every cylinder.
The band’s fourth LP is a great album – BUT – it sounds a little too CLEAN for a Jawbox album. That being said, the songs are great, and I really dig this record. They were branching out, getting a lot poppier, and this should have been a popular record. Instead, they got screwed by their label, and they broke up. Bummer. I do wonder where they would have gone from here, and maybe that’s what was on their minds as well? Burning Airlines proved Robbins had more to offer to the world, and he has continued with a steady stream of output in other bands and projects. And OH YEAH – “Cornflake Girl” – what a fantastic cover!! To some degree, this does sound like the end of the line for Jawbox. While they are branching into both poppier tracks and musical experimentation (note Barocas’ poly-rhythmic styles here), I also detect beneath the surface of it all a band that is getting a little bored with the concept at its root. The fire may have been fading, the muse long gone. Maybe nothing indicates this more directly than the fact that the album is self-titled. The way I see it, unless we’re talking a band’s debut, the self-titled album always seems to indicate a band that is creatively spent and near the end of its life. Still, I insist, this is a GREAT ALBUM. It really is. There’s not a stinker among the songs, and tracks like “Iodine” and “Desert Sea” are just so gorgeous. Just wish the production had a little less gloss and a little more gain.
Jawbox had a fair number of b-sides and rarities, but most of those have been collected on…
My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents (1998)
This collects most, but not all, of their rarities. As for the hard copy version of this, it’s worth buying for the extensive notes alone. The dates and locations of every show they played, details on all their releases, and recording and original release info for all of these tracks. The Peel session, which comprises the first five tracks here, is pretty great, and honestly, I prefer these versions of these tracks to the album / studio versions (“68” was originally a b-side). “Apollo Amateur” hails from the same recording sessions as the last LP, and is really good as well.
Not included on Scrapbook are “Footbinder” (cool early instrumental track that was on a Simple Machines 7″ comp), “Lil’ Shaver” (b-side from the Sweetheart sessions, sounds great), and “Secret History” and “Twister” (both on the band’s first 7″, and both fairly MEH as they are from that early era).
We’ll of course never know what would have happened if Jawbox had never ventured down the major label road. They might still be around, but would we have Sweetheart in all its glory now?
Honestly though, I don’t really blame Jawbox’s demise on the major label thing. I think Burning Airlines attests to the fact that the Jawbox aesthetic – maximalist post-hardcore guitar rock glory – had run its inevitable course. After all, Burning Airlines sounds like a very stripped down Jawbox, and that minimalist aesthetic worked so well!
Have your own thoughts on Jawbox? Got thoughts on my thoughts above? Feel free to share them in the comments below!