Although identified as a product of Berkeley’s East Bay punk scene, Jawbreaker first came together in the late ’80s in New York City, where its three members were attending New York University. Jawbreaker’s 1990 debut, Unfun, was recorded over a week-long school break. With its rollercoaster riffs, lurching rhythms and guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach’s sore-throat vocals, Unfun offers a rousing alternative to the testosterone-fueled thrash of ’80s hardcore, proving that catchy pop-punk could provide the same intensity of feeling and spirit. Bassist Chris Bauermeister and drummer Adam Pfahler, borrowing the power-trio dynamics of Hüsker Dü, anchor Schwarzenbach’s Modern Lit lyrics on infectiously upbeat cuts like “Busy” and “Down.” In what would become a running theme, Schwarzenbach addresses several songs to the punk scene around him: “Sorry we ain’t hard enough to piss your parents off,” he croaks on “Incomplete,” adding, “Hatred’s not our policy, we tried that game and lost.” (The CD of the album includes the band’s 1989 Whack & Blite single.)
The self-abuse Schwarzenbach wreaked with his gravely singing style eventually led to painful throat problems, which accounts for the aggravated hoarseness on Bivouac, recorded in 1992 after the post-graduation trio had settled in San Francisco. Although it lacks the playful brightness of Unfun, Bivouac repeats the trio’s formula of literate, well-crafted pop songs filled with unpredictable breaks and changes. “Seven hundred miles to play to fifteen angry men / I need some sleep / They hate the songs,” Schwarzenbach sings on “Tour Song,” one of the most perfect summaries of life in the all-ages punk-rock underground. “Two cool people came / They’re hiding by the door, eyes wide with fright / A guy, a girl, in love with the whole world / It almost makes it right.” Produced with loud, loose reins by Steve Albini, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy continues the Jawbreaker tradition of aggressive guitars, half-screamed vocals and witty, literate (and often self-referential) lyrics. “The Boat Dreams From the Hill” (“I wanna be a boat / I wanna learn to swim / Then I’ll learn to float / Then begin again”) and others have the chunky rhythm guitar chord shapes that bring Jawbreaker in synch with the rise of the East Bay’s pop-punk scene. Faced with the choice between a potentially viable career in major-label music and the sectarian style hypocrisy of the local bands around them, Schwarzenbach responded with the pithy “Boxcar”: “You’re not punk and I’m telling everyone / Save your breath, I never was one.” On “Indictment,” he champions the band’s style of catchy pop-punk: “I just wrote the dumbest song / It’s gonna be a singalong / All our friends will clap and sing / Our enemies will laugh and be pointing.”
After the runaway success of Green Day’s Dookie in late 1994, Jawbreaker signed to DGC Records for its fourth album. Sadly, Dear You has all the earmarks of a classic major-label sellout: with almost none of his customary raspiness, Schwarzenbach sings rather than shouts, while the production (Green Day star Rob Cavallo and the band) crafts a much glossier, more radio-friendly sound. Most of Dear You is given over to dysfunctional love songs, filled with confused emotions, self-loathing and complicated, twisted metaphors. The closest Dear You comes to the old Jawbreaker is the anthemic “Save Your Generation,” in which Schwarzenbach admonishes his peers to seize life and stop slacking off: “I have a present: it is the present,” he sings. “I have a message — save your generation, we’re killing ourselves by sleeping in.”
Jawbreaker amicably dissolved itself the following summer. Schwarzenbach went on to form and lead Jets to Brazil.