Formed in 1989 by ex-Government Issue bassist J. (Jay) Robbins, Jawbox went a long way toward stretching the boundaries of the formulaic call-and-response thrash of the DC/Dischord sound. With Robbins as singer, guitarist and songwriter, Grippe (recorded as a three-piece) is a rich, varied, polyrhythmic tour de force that still bears repeated listening. Every lyric is a free-verse poem, open to interpretation, although lines like “You woke from a dream of a blank page/Unwritten story of six years sleeping” suggest a search for identity, which Robbins certainly established after years as an overlooked backup player. It’s odd that Kim Coletta’s bass, such a forceful presence in the band’s live performances, is mixed so low here; odder still to hear a Dischord band cover a Joy Division song (“Something Must Break”).
Shortly after recording Grippe, Jawbox added second guitarist Bill Barbot, who makes his debut on Novelty. Robbins’ writing is even more eclectic on this sophomore effort, soaking up influences from other bands like a sponge. Some songs reflect the dissonant, erotic harmonies of labelmates Shudder to Think; the pounding, percussive anger of other tracks smacks of Helmet. But Novelty is a disappointment, despite its inventiveness and undeniable intensity. The mushy mix wastes the dual guitars, and Robbins’ vocals frequently seem dreary and monochromatic.
Jawbox’s decision to leave the insular and fiercely independent protectorate of Dischord for Atlantic Records raised quite a few eyebrows and suspicions in and around the highly principled DC punk scene. But Savory+3, Jawbox’s major-label debut, only takes Robbins’ cerebral songcraft to a higher level. With Zachary Barocas replacing Adam Wade on drums, the EP has a brighter, crisper sound than anything the band had previously recorded. “Savory,” an uneasy love song sung to an angel (real or metaphoric, it’s impossible to tell), welds a mesmerizing melody to an enigmatic hook — “one hand will wash the other.” Effortlessly switching gears from a hushed whisper to an explosive climax, “68” showcases the band’s dynamic command. The four-song EP concludes with a cover of the Big Boys’ “Sound on Sound,” perhaps meant to reaffirm the band’s DIY/underground commitment.
Also co-produced by Ted Nicely, For Your Own Special Sweetheart rocks even harder than the EP, with electrifying tracks like “FF=66,” “LS/MFT” and “Chicago Piano” recalling the angry percussive hardcore of Fugazi. Robbins continues to weave beauty and discord into each song; grating, dissonant guitars dissolve into cascading, harmonic vocals, propelled by Barocas’ rock-solid drums and Coletta’s thumping, melodic basslines. The lyrics rarely make linear sense, so each song’s meaning tends to be communicated by the timbre of the music and the emotional quality of his vocals — seething with anger on “Breathe” and “Jackpot Plus!,” yearning and wistful on “Savory” and “Reel.” Still, most tracks manage to incorporate a range of emotions and dynamics, leaving listeners to discern their own interpretations. For Your Own Special Sweetheart is not an easy album to like — there are no cuddly cartoon images or instantly hummable pop melodies — but it’s there to be appreciated for those willing to invest the effort.
Co-produced by John Agnello, Jawbox finds the group doggedly sticking to the same formula of melodic dissonance and off-kilter rhythms without appreciably expanding its musical vocabulary (or potential appeal). The songs range from disconsolate balladry to frenetic hardcore-tempo shouting matches between Robbins and Barbot, all driven by the former’s obsessive search for grace within musical and emotional anarchy. Moody, driven and downbeat (save for the occasional sanguine moment, like the rousing “Excandescent”), Jawbox is a work of integrity and passion from a pop band that refuses to write pop songs.
And that’s where the Jawbox story ended. Jawbox broke up in early 1997. My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents is a posthumously released collection of Peel sessions, outtakes, B-sides, compilation contributions and other non-LP material.
The German live album, which the quartet shares with Leatherface, documents Jawbox in action at Chicago’s Lounge Ax in October 1994.