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Reliving Shiner live: Eleven shows, six cities, four years

Shiner live

I first heard Shiner in 1997 via a mix tape containing “Fetch a Switch” and “The Situationist,” the best songs from their first two records, 1995’s Splay and the recently released Lula Divinia. I consulted Parasol Records’ catalog description to make sure my ears weren’t deceiving me—“Hum meets Jawbox,” yes, please—and promptly ordered Lula. Instantly a fan, I eagerly picked up their Sub Pop 7” for “Sleep It Off” b/w “Half Empty” and proudly wore a “SHINER” mock-Army t-shirt in high school. Absolutely none of my classmates understood it.

That changed when I left for college Champaign, IL, in 1999. The Midwest was Shiner’s literal stomping ground; they toured constantly and left ears ringing in their wake. Yet it’s still shocking to me that I’d get to see a non-local band eleven times in four years, even if it involved going to five other cities in the Midwest. Appropriately enough, only Allen Epley’s post-Shiner band The Life and Times matches that total.

That tie is about to be broken, however, since Shiner has reunited for five shows this summer in honor of an impending vinyl pressing of their 2001 swan song, The Egg. The concerts are slated for each member’s respective home city: New York, Chicago (x2), Kansas City, and Los Angeles, and you’re damn right I’m driving down to New York for my twelfth Shiner show.

In honor of this occasion, I’ve decided to do two things. First, if you haven’t heard Lula Divinia or The Egg, I’ll do you a favor and tell you to stop reading and buy them immediately. The combination of supreme heft, math-rock-inclined arrangements, and sneaky melodies is a gift that keeps giving. Second, I’m going to look back at each of the eleven previous times I saw Shiner. I’ll drag out photos, recall the accompanying acts (many of whom were legitimately great on their own accord), and do my best to remember the actual sets.

1/28/2000 at the Rocketbar in St. Louis, MO

I scored a ride from Champaign down to St. Louis because Centaur, Matt Talbott’s post-Hum band, was booked for its second-ever show there. I rolled with a lot of Hum fanatics at the time, and three of us had just seen Centaur play its first-ever show at a VFW in Danville, IL, a hangdog affair in which band members confused their then-numbered songs in front of some completely oblivious locals. This time, my friend Jackie and I were considerably more excited to see Shiner.

Autosleeper was first on the bill. The band name is presumably a reference to the Chapterhouse song title, but I remember thinking they were a pale imitation of both Shiner and Hum, not Midwestern-gaze.

Centaur’s sheepish emergence into the world continued. I have three distinct memories of their performance: Matt Talbott’s comically large beer bottle being at odds with their otherwise stoic stage presence; what would eventually become “The Same Place” comprising the best eight minutes of the set; and Talbott’s wah pedal breaking two songs in, to which he sighed “My band’s in this pedal.” Their performance sputtered out after one more song, proving Talbott’s assertion that his pedal truly was indispensible.

Shiner took the stage as a four-piece with Jason Gerken on drums and Josh Newton on second guitar, a new line-up for the group, not that I’d seen the others. Gerken had taken over for much-heralded Tim Dow, who’d moved to Los Angeles (where he’d collaborate with Failure’s Ken Andrews in both On and Year of the Rabbit). Newton replaced Joel Hamilton, who’d appeared on “Sailor’s Fate,” the solid b-side to their stellar 1999 single “Semper Fi.” True to Shiner form, both members had served time in Kansas City’s Season to Risk, but Gerken was more known for Molly McGuire, Newton better associated with Glazed Baby.

I was impressed by early versions of songs that would end up on Starless, especially “Unglued” and “Lazy Eye” (which sounded more eerie and threatening than it would on the album), but most of my memories from that night were of Gerken’s appearance and performance. He went shirtless with overalls—not a look I could pull off—and played with a swagger that he’d later tone down. I was borderline terrified of him.

9/28/2000 at the Metro in Chicago, IL

Shiner live

I celebrated the night before my 20th birthday with a trip up to Chicago for the dude-rockingest night of the Flower Booking Festival. In hindsight, I should have attended all of the nights: Trans Am, Don Caballero, Tortoise, The Sea & Cake, Grifters, Turing Machine, etc., but come on, Burning Airlines and Shiner? That’s the one I’m attending.

Bluetip started off the evening as no slouch of an opening act. I’d only heard the Hot (-) Fast (+) Union EP at the time, but I enjoyed it, especially “Compliment the Negative.” Did I immediately pick up the rest of their back catalog? Of course not. I regret this inaction. They were solid live and I never got to see them again.

Shiner was second on the bill, which meant they played a shorter set than I would have preferred. It was good hearing the Starless songs after the record came out—the title track was considerably better live. I recall “Fetch a Switch” making a welcome appearance.

The recently formed Hey Mercedes (75% of Braid) was third. I’d seen them in Champaign with Rectangle a few weeks earlier and learned a valuable lesson about the diminishing returns of early Hey Mercedes shows. The first song: “Whoa, this is great! It’s catchier than Braid!” Third song: “Still good! Still catchy!” Fifth song: Looks at watch. Seventh song: “How many more dunna-nuh, dunna-dunnas do they have in them?” In short, they didn’t have forty minutes of varied material yet and by the end of their set I was exhausted. I enjoyed their shows more once they had a full LP out, but as it turned out, “Bells” and “The House Shook” from that first EP remain my two favorite Hey Mercedes songs.

I’d seen Burning Airlines the previous October at the Highdive in Champaign, but this time they had a bunch of new material that was being road-tested before appearing on Identikit. Hearing “A Song With No Words” for the first time that evening was phenomenal. I wish I could watch J. Robbins play guitar every night, but sadly, he has other things to do.

I am fairly sure The Promise Ring were the evening’s special guest, but sticking around for another band after Burning Airlines felt sacrilegious to me. I did see The Promise Ring three other times in college, two of which were enjoyable sets highlighted by Davey Von Bohlen’s deft handling of hecklers, the last a baffling pre-Wood/Water set that trading their pop-punk enthusiasm for alt-country slogs.

1/20/2001 at the Highdive, Champaign, IL

Perhaps owing to the fact that I didn’t have to drive to a different city to attend the show, I can’t remember many of the details about this show. Centaur had certainly improved—their songs likely had names, not numbers by this point—and drummer Jim Kelly and bassist Derek Niedringhaus were holding down the fort. It was still a year before In Streams would come out. Will it ever get a follow-up? Who knows. They played unreleased songs at later shows, but even those concerts were way back in 2004 and 2005.

As for Shiner, I wish I had the set list for this show, since I’m curious whether they’d started to play songs from The Egg yet. My gut says no, but there are YouTube clips from a show at the Bottleneck in Kansas City from 2/3/2001 for “Surgery,” “The Simple Truth,” “Spook the Herd” (vastly different lyrics), “Bells and Whistles,” and “The Truth about Cows.” My guess is that they chose to debut the new material at the hometown show.

5/11/2001 at the Galaxy in St. Louis, MO

Shiner live

With the finals of my sophomore year of college in the rearview, my then-girlfriend, now-wife (henceforth TGNW) and I drove down to St. Louis to hang out with my friend Jon Mount and see Shiner for the fourth time. Given the fact that Riddle of Steel’s bassist ran the Rocketbar, I was surprised that the show wasn’t over there.

Both opening acts were bands that my peers generally appreciated more than I did. Riddle of Steel combined Midwestern indie rock with a larger dose of hard rock. If I lived in St. Louis, I likely would have seen them countless times, but they didn’t play Champaign much.

Houston had the Copper Press (the print magazine I occasionally contributed to, including a piece on Shiner) stamp of approval, since editor Steve Brydges snapped them up for his label, 54 40 or Fight, but I couldn’t get into them for one simple reason: their live guitar tone. It evoked a thinner, more metallic version of the guitar tones of Failure’s Comfort, which was like nails on a chalkboard for me. That’s a damn shame, since I otherwise liked their songwriting. (The cover art for Bottom of the Curve is inexcusably terrible, though.) I saw Houston three other times: their best performance came on a bill with Ring, Cicada at the Prairie House in Bloomington, IL.

One between-song comment to Jon Mount stands out about this show. After Shiner played “The Situationist” near the end of their set, I said “They definitely know which songs are their best,” to which he agreed. I’ve seen bands that play everything but the three or four best songs in their catalog, which is infuriating, but Allen Epley’s bands have never suffered from that issue.

8/11/2001 at the Southgate House in Newport, KY

If I had to rank my favorite all-time shows—a simple dare would get this project started—this one would be up there. I got to leave early from a family get-together for my TGNW’s family, which alone was cause for celebration, and cross from Cincinnati over to Newport, Kentucky for the show. The Southgate House was a great venue, like someone stuck a less claustrophobic version of the Middle East Downstairs into the back of a huge house. And the bill was, for my tastes, comparable to the Flower Booking night.

I was introduced to Spain’s Aina from a split 7” with The Capitol City Dusters in 1999. Aina’s contribution, “Lutton Can Wait,” is one of my most-played sides of vinyl, to the point where I had to buy a second copy of the record. Their sound is as easy to describe as it is to appreciate: the DC rock of Jawbox and Fugazi cut with the hard rock of AC/DC. Even with my fondness for “Lutton Can Wait,” I didn’t expect them to be this good. When a massive thunderstorm opened up outside midway through their set, singer/guitarist Artur Estrada pointed up at the lightning strikes and the band hit another gear. If you missed out on them, put their 1998 self-titled LP and 2001’s Bipartite on your to-buy list and check out Artur Estrada’s next band, Nueva Vulcano.

This is what I remember about Shiner’s set: “Holy shit, ‘The Egg’ and ‘The Simple Truth’ are insanely good.” The former might be Jason Gerken’s answer to Tim Dow’s work on “My Life as a Housewife,” whereas the latter pulled in some post-rock influence to excellent effect.

I could have gone home ecstatic after Aina and Shiner, but Burning Airlines was the icing on the cake. They played a solid, Identikit-heavy set. I remember talking to drummer Pete Moffett at the show, but damned if I recall what we chatted about. I got to see them one final time in Champaign the next month on another solid bill (Rival Schools and Hey Mercedes), but J. Robbins’ days of heavy touring were soon coming to a close. Am I still bummed Jawbox didn’t do any proper reunion shows for the For Your Own Special Sweetheart reissue? Yes, yes I am.

10/19/2001 at the Metro in Chicago, IL

In one of the weirder bills in my concert-going history, Shiner took the middle slot between two Barsuk bands, piano rockers The Prom and the rapidly ascending Death Cab for Cutie. In one sense, Shiner and Death Cab sharing a bill makes sense, since Death Cab toured with Shiner’s DeSoto Records label-mates The Dismemberment Plan and briefly shared bassist Nick Harmer with another beloved DeSoto band, Juno. But despite the mutual fondness for both bands between my TGNW and me, bridging the gap between air-drumming dude-rockers and a sensitive emo kids was a tall order.

There was no doubt which side of that ledger The Prom fell on. Imagine Ben Folds Five’s “Brick” as an early 2000s emo song and you’re 85% of the way there. Fortunately, my now-wife didn’t care for them, so I avoided having to buy that CD and hear it a few times. Phew.

My desire to hear songs from Shiner’s forthcoming The Egg again was bordering on a bodily need. It’s different now that you can see videos of unreleased songs on YouTube before they’re recorded, but in 2001, the only way I could wrap my head around “The Simple Truth” and “The Egg” was to see Shiner perform them as much as possible. It was a rare situation even then—most bands don’t tour heavily before their new album comes out, but Shiner was an exception to that rule. I’m endlessly thankful that they were.

The album was three days away from its release, but by this point “The Simple Truth” and “The Egg” were the standouts of their set. I reveled in the fact a number of Death Cab fans around me were plugging their fingers into their ears and grimacing.

I remember talking to Josh Newton at this show and asking him how their dates with Death Cab were going. He relayed a story from one of the previous nights, in which he was in the back of the club playing Golden Tee during their set, and the song approached silence. Naturally, Golden Tee made a ton of noise and a good percentage of the audience turned around and glared at him.

The members of Death Cab for Cutie, however, had a better sense of humor. Their amps had DC/FC stylized in the AC/DC font, so naturally I yelled out for AC/DC songs. They laughed, but sadly didn’t break out a rendition of “Big Balls.” I couldn’t help but feel the letdown after Shiner, however, since Death Cab’s set was quieter than the one they’d played at the sweaty Fireside Bowl nine months earlier (before The Photo Album increased their hype considerably) and couldn’t help but feel like an elongated, post-coital cuddle session.

One more note: we also managed to see Rectangle and Danger Adventure at The Big Horse, a Mexican restaurant/music venue. It was the only time I saw Rectangle outside of Urbana-Champaign, but the sound was so terrible that I probably only heard half of them.

10/20/2001 at the Highdive in Champaign, IL

There aren’t many bands I’ve seen on back-to-back nights, but Shiner joined the club when they headed down to Champaign to play The Egg in its entirety. That gimmick isn’t necessarily my favorite—I like guessing which song’s coming up next—but it worked for Shiner, since The Egg is an album in the way some decrepit Rolling Stone critic might someday elucidate. Plus they weren’t doing it as a way to milk dutiful fans out of another $40 (cough, Pixies, cough).

Not that I needed more reason to attend, but finally getting to see Collinsville, Illinois, instrumental rockers, Ring, Cicada as the lone openers for this show, but waiting is appropriate for the band. Having existed in some form or another since the mid ’90s, Ring, Cicada didn’t release a proper LP until 2003’s Good Morning, Mr. Good, which was sadly overlooked. They had a few short run EPs before the LP, but nothing that extended past regional affection. Naturally, all of my friends who had seen then raved about their performances, and rightly so: Ring, Cicada played an unusually emotional brand of math-rock. I remember being floored by their guitar tones, which were the direct opposite of Houston’s Achilles heel. I could throw a bunch of tired adjectives at you—warm, full-bodied, rich—but they wouldn’t tell the whole story. Guitarist Christian Powell emerged as an occasional vocalist on Good Morning, but the instrumental takes were hardly deficient.

Two key Shiner connections: first, bassist Eric Abert has been in The Life and Times since 2005, second, Ring, Cicada is on the bill for the Shiner reunion show at the Bottom Lounge, which makes me sad I’m no longer within driving range of Chicago.

4/6/2002 at the Highdive in Champaign, IL

Shiner live

I’d come back from a road trip to Louisville, Kentucky the day before, glowing from a dominating triple bill of Fugazi, Shipping News, and Rachel’s (RIP Jason Noble), and was thrilled to see Shiner as well. While the Flower Booking and Southgate House bills were better, this evening might rank as my favorite Shiner performance.

The only opener was Schatzi, who bridged the gap between indie rock, emo, and pop-punk. Super enthusiastic and melodically driven, like a cross between Superchunk and The Get-Up Kids. I thought of them last year when I heard Hammer No More the Fingers’ Black Shark; it’s similarly catchy, but HMNTF's songs stuck with me, whereas I forgot about Schatzi’s songs by the end of the night.

Feel free to blame Shiner’s set for my Schatzi amnesia. They played both of the Japanese bonus tracks from The Egg, “Dirty Jazz” and “I’ll Leave Without You,” which were great live. They continued to play the best songs from The Egg, along with the highlights from earlier records. Perhaps the most obvious reason for me to think of this show more than the others is that I have a 24x18” blow-up of the accompanying photo above my desk.

I took it with my new Nikon digital camera, which I was still learning how to use. Results were mixed, but since Shiner didn’t shy away from lights, I could do my flash-and-long-exposure technique to get either motion or ghost images. That particular photo is the best ghost image I’ve ever taken—Epley looks like he’s conjuring a raging spirit. If I had steadier hands, maybe Gerken’s kit wouldn’t look like a neon smear.

7/3/2002 at Radio Radio in Indianapolis, IN

Shiner live

I’ve mentioned my TGNW a few times, but I have to give her credit: When I’d have the crazy idea to drive out to Indianapolis to see Shiner the night before the Fourth of July, she gladly tagged along. And this show was in the pre-Yelp days, so I literally knew nothing else to do in Indianapolis. If it wasn’t on the block of the club, I didn’t know about it. I guarantee we ate dinner at some shitty pizza joint. That was the golden age for shitty pizza joints.

New York City’s Pilot to Gunner was the first act on the bill. I’d heard their Hit the Ground and Hum EP when it came out, since its press release named the right names (Jawbox, Mission of Burma), but wasn’t impressed. The day of the show I decided to check out their new full length, Games at High Speed, on eMusic, and was stunned by how much they’d improved. Their high-energy post-punk shout-alongs were even better live. I chatted with them after their set and learned they’d just played the Prairie House in Bloomington, IL, and one of them sheepishly admitted to making out with Nudie, a frequent visitor to the Prairie House. Nudie, as you might imagine, had a tendency to get naked (along with one of house’s residents) in the routine after-show dance parties. More importantly, Nudie had a tattoo on her inner thigh: an arrow pointing crotchward with “Tasty” written nearby. Regardless of their beer goggles, I still enjoy Pilot to Gunner a great deal, and am glad they’re finally following up 2004’s Get Saved with the upcoming Guilty Guilty on Arctic Rodeo Records (the same label that’s issuing Burning Airlines’ two albums on vinyl).

Shiner’s set was looser than the past few—they weren’t promoting The Egg as hard and they were in the middle slot on the bill, so they skipped around their albums a bit more. As much as I loved hearing songs from The Egg the previous summer, it was nice to get more from Lula again.

Jets to Brazil closed out the show. Is it slander to admit that I was never obsessed with Jawbreaker or Jets to Brazil? Probably just lost a bunch of cred points. I do enjoy Orange Rhyming Dictionary, especially “Chinatown” (along with a few Jawbreaker albums), but when it came down to Jawbox/Burning Airlines vs. Jawbreaker/Jets to Brazil in the non-existent battle of the similarly named bands, I’m a J. Robbins guy all the way.

11/11/2002 at The Highdive in Champaign, IL

Shiner live

I doubt that I saw any of The Capitol City Dusters’ set and here’s why: I had a long interview with Aina drummer Pau Santesmasses, who had the best command of English in the group, and planned to work it into a piece for Copper Press. But I assume that my finals kept me from working on it, and the interview—which I remember being quite insightful to their fondness for DC music—sat on a microcassette, untouched. It’s probably still in a bin in my basement. I feel genuinely shitty about it.

Aina, of course, were excellent, just like they’d been the year before. By this point I’d been able to process their records, so the shock and awe of the Southgate House performance had worn off, but their command of the material hadn't. I gladly would have seen them another nine times, but they broke up after a pair of EPs.

Shiner set list

I only have one Shiner set list in my possession and it’s from this show. Do I remember what “New #2” was? Sadly not. Otherwise, the song selection is flawless. “Sleep It Off” from the Sub Pop single has always been one of my favorites, and I don’t recall them playing it too often.

One note: I believe this was the show when Paul Malinowski said something like “I see you at a lot of these shows” to me. Yes, yes you did.

1/25/2003 at the Madrid Theater in Kansas City, MO

When Shiner announced in late 2002 that they were breaking up, I wasn’t hugely surprised. That may be strange for an obsessive fan to admit, but what drove Shiner was Allen Epley’s desire to improve the band. That’s what he did with the three-piece version on Lula Divinia vs. Splay, that’s what he did with the four-piece version on The Egg vs. Starless. In some ways, Shiner wrote themselves into a corner with The Egg; there was no inferior band member to replace, no obvious flaw to correct. The clearest course was to do something different, which was easier to do with a new band name and new collaborators. Epley’s too committed to music to quit entirely, so I knew he wasn’t going to disappear into a day job, and sure enough, he emerged a shortly after with The Life and Times.

That isn’t to say that I wasn’t disappointed that Shiner was breaking up, since I wouldn’t get to see those songs live again (for a decade, at least). As such, there was no way in hell I’d miss out on their final show. It’s the longest I’ve driven for a concert—although I admittedly flew from Boston to Seattle for Juno’s reunion shows—and I’m eternally grateful that Jackie, Jon, and Bill joined me for the adventure. It’s entirely possible I might have died on the drive back to St. Louis if not for the gentle nudge that I should stop and walk around.

I remember very little about opening act Elevator Division—they were the local opener without the local sound, and given the number of Kansas City bands I’ve enjoyed over the years, that felt like an intrusion on a proper send-off. In comparison, Shiner’s common touring partner Houston was a good fit, irritating guitar tone be damned.

The last opening act was considerably more exciting. Dirtnap was/is a Kansas City band who’d released two excellent records (the still-weird combination of atmospheric Slint post-rock and aggressive Midwestern rock of 1997’s Below the Speed of Sound and the emotional resonance and superlative guitar work of 2003’s Long Songs for Short Term Friends), but hadn’t ventured out to Champaign during my time there. They apparently played a show in Kansas City back in April, which fortunately made it up to YouTube. Excuse me while I watch all of it.

Shiner live

Shiner’s final performance was a blowout in the best possible way. They played 24 songs in a nearly two-hour-long set. Thax Douglas, poet laureate of rock shows in Chicago, came out to do a reading. They played songs I hadn’t heard them do in ages (“Released,” “Sideways”/“Pinned”). The encore started with the Splay lineup of Epley, Dow, and bassist Shawn Sherrill performing “Brooks,” then swapped Sherrill for Malinowski to do Lula material, including Dow’s drumming clinic “My Life as a Housewife.” (Fun fact: Gerken wouldn’t do “Housewife” because Dow owned it so much.) Watching Dow drum was a thrill—he’s a much smaller guy than Gerken, but still hits with such power and precision. Newton and Gerken reemerged for the last few songs, closing the night with “Starless.” It was an appropriately somber closing note, reminding everybody that yes, they’re done.

(Until the reunion shows, of course.)

You can download their final set here. Thanks to whoever originally recorded and dispersed it. I believe Shiner is still planning on releasing a retrospective DVD, which may contain some or all of this set.

The Ten: Favorite songs fronted by J. Robbins

J. Robbins live with Burning Airlines at the Highdive in Champaign, IL

Choosing my favorite albums fronted by J. Robbins* has never been difficult—Jawbox’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart, Burning Airlines’ Mission: Control!, and Jawbox in that order—but choosing ten favorite songs from the D.C. great is a harrowing proposition. Robbins has penned a towering stack of remarkable tracks in the twenty-two years since striking out on his own after the demise of Government Issue. With seven full-lengths, plus a slew of EPs, singles, and compilation appearances to choose from, there are plenty of candidates for this list. Plus, Robbins’ newest group, Office of Future Plans, will release their self-titled debut LP on Dischord in November, likely forcing future revisions.

So why J. Robbins? All of his bands—Jawbox, Burning Airlines, Channels, and now Office of Future Plans—epitomize what I love about D.C. post-hardcore/post-punk: tricky guitar parts, rhythmic complexity, and passionate delivery. But what sets Robbins apart is his voice. In the literal sense, it’s melodic but approachable, strong-willed yet compassionate. I use Robbins’ voice as the barometer for a legion of like-minded late ’90s / early ’00s guitar-rock vocalists**: it never devolves into monotone post-hardcore shouting, never pushes awkwardly out of the ideal singing-along-in-the-car range. In the figurative sense of voice, Robbins’ lyrics rank among my favorites. His songs are opaque, but never outright inscrutable. Even when there’s a clear topic at hand, there are three or four alternate ways to read it. His songs skew both personal and political; each record echoes its era without being trapped by it. His expanded vocabulary prompted a Jawbox Lexicon to appear on the old DeSoto Records site. In short, his intellectual impulses add resonance and depth to the songs, but never turn listeners away.

J. Robbins is the lone common thread across the four bands he’s fronted, but I would be remiss to ignore his universally excellent collaborators. In case you think I’ve ignored the mammoth contributions of Kim Coletta, Adam Wade, Bill Barbot, Zach Barocas, Peter Moffett, Mike Harbin, Janet Morgan, Darren Zentek, Gordon Withers, and Brooks Harlan, don’t worry, they’ll get their due when I discuss individual songs. Sadly, the logistics of choosing Robbins-penned tracks robs this list of the superlative Barbot-fronted Jawbox song, “Tongues.” It similarly precludes the discussion of covers like Joy Division’s “Something Must Break,” Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” Big Boys’ “Sound on Sound,” Echo & the Bunnymen’s “Back of Love,” and The Stranglers’ “Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead.” Another list, perhaps.

These ten songs are presented in chronological order to allow for the general narrative. Before you drop an outraged comment that a particular song wasn’t chosen, let me make an obvious point: Choosing just ten songs from these records was nearly impossible. Making a list of Jawbox songs alone would be difficult. I’ve tried to cover as much ground—stylistically and chronologically—as possible, but my preferences for the aforementioned trio of albums and Robbins’ introspective mid-tempo songs were hard to abandon.

Jawbox's Novelty

Jawbox, “Dreamless”: There are a handful of worthy songs on Jawbox’s 1991 debut LP, Grippe (“Bullet Park,” “Consolation Prize”), but things got considerably more interesting on its 1992 follow-up Novelty. Bill Barbot joined the group as a second guitarist and vocal foil, which added an essential dynamic to Jawbox’s songs. Managing to be both heavier and more melodic, Novelty represents a quantum leap forward for the group. Although “Static” and “Spit Bite” also merit inclusion, “Dreamless” reigns as my favorite track from this album. It’s a confident merger of the personal and political. Some lines echo Fugazi’s timeless political unrest—“Every minute’s test of our possessions / Leaves us with obsession / That pushes the extreme” (a nod to the Wipers, perhaps?), “Sleep in the nation’s arms is dreamless,” “Clinging to the truth of doctrine so no shots are fired blindly”—but its layered chorus signals something more personal at stake: “Nothing shines in your eyes / Concede my oversight / Blue light burns bright inside / A beautiful disguise.” There’s optimism in Robbins’ portrayal of the system-wearied individual struggling to recognize the potential for reinvention. (Essential note on Novelty: If you don’t already have a copy, make sure you get the remastered version from 2003. The original mix is muddy and unflattering to its source.)

Jawbox's For Your Own Special Sweetheart

Jawbox, “FF=66”: Jawbox jumped from Dischord to Atlantic for 1994’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart, mirroring the career path of peers Shudder to Think. Like Pony Express Record, FYOSS stands as the biggest achievement in the group’s catalog: a louder, clearer, better statement. FYOSS addresses the major-label jump in its opening salvo. “FF=66” starts with an excerpt of William Carlos Williams reading his 1950 poem: “Seafarers”: “He invites the storm, he / lives by it! instinct / with fears that are not fears / but prickles of ecstasy.” (Full reading here.) I see two primary ways of reading the poem in the context of “FF=66”/FYOSS: first, the “he” is the listener, the invited storm is the music that follows, and the “prickles of ecstasy” are the response to it; second, the “he” is Jawbox, the invited storm is the presumed outcry over leaving Dischord, and the “fears that are not fears” are the ecstatic outlook on this willing future. Either way, it’s an evocative start to the song/album.

Even without its lyrics, “FF=66” would make a huge statement about how Jawbox approached their major-label debut. The razor-wire guitar scrapes, J. Robbins’ barked delivery, Kim Coletta’s swaggering bass line, and new drummer Zach Barocas’s vicious tom work make the aggressive songs on Novelty a quickly forgotten opening act. The melodic chorus slides in seamlessly, betraying zero sense of being shoehorned in by an anxious A&R rep. But those lyrics, specifically “Just want a way not to be what gets sold to me,” present the superior work on FYOSS as way to retain the group’s integrity in the face of that invited storm.

Jawbox's 'Savory' single

Jawbox, “Savory”: Was there any doubt that “Savory” would make the cut? It’s Jawbox’s most well-known song, having first appeared on a 1993 split single with Edsel, then as the lead single for For Your Own Special Sweetheart, then on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, then as a live cut on the posthumous My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents compilation, then on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon for the 2009 reunion. Far and the Deftones covered the song. It made an appearance on the inexplicable 1999 K-Tel Nowcore! The Punk Rock Evolution compilation. It made the Pitchfork 500 book and their recent top 200 tracks of the ’90s list. If you’ve heard Jawbox, you’ve heard “Savory.”

What strikes me about “Savory” is how strange it remains, despite potential overexposure. Yes, it’s Jawbox’s most well-known song, yes, it’s arguably their best song, but it’s not a logical, straightforward single. It’s meditative and oblique, filled with droning chords and buried melodies, but its chorus is casually inviting. It offers a cycle of tension and release, but its resolve could merely restart the process. Its lyrics imply divergent topics—the objectification of women, D.C. politics, a manipulative relationship, mutualism—but no reading of the song disavows another. There’s no single stand-out musical performance because they’re all stand-out performances, operating in a closed system of democratic efficiency. Its strangeness is ultimately a sign of its perfection. Few songs gain depth with each successive listen, fewer still retain their initial bewilderment. “Savory” does both.

Jawbox's 'Savory' EP

Jawbox, “68”: It’s hard to figure out why “68” was pushed to the Savory EP instead of being included on the otherwise outstanding For Your Own Special Sweetheart. (This injustice was partially rectified when “68” was included as a bonus track on DeSoto/Dischord’s 2009 reissue of the album.) The answer might linger in some fanzine interview from 1994, but since my Jawbox fandom started in 1996, I’ve been at a loss for a specific answer. I have theories, of course—that its melancholic arpeggios would have stood out too much from the distortion of “Motorist” and “LS-MFT,” that its subject matter might have been too personal for wide release, that it didn’t fit into the flow of the album—but none of them justify its banishment to a CD single. In fact, two of those reasons stress why I love “68” so much. Both Robbins’ elongated syllables and those reticent guitars, particularly in the verses, clash with Kim Coletta’s driving bass line, but the song still moves forward with the relentless work ethic evoked in “The paths they’re cut so deep / From thirty years of sleep / Of walking from the quarry to the wall.”

There’s a remarkable lyrical economy to “68,” beginning and ending with “I got the message / Calling me back home.” J. Robbins is too good, too opaque of a lyricist to give a clear-cut picture of what happened, but I’ve always suspected that the song was about a father’s passing. (Jon Mount argues that it’s about Vietnam vets.) The key lines are “And all they try to keep / Is slipping piece by piece / In spite of all attempts at holding on,” which work in so many different contexts, but could easily apply to the family’s support system at home. I listened to the song a number of times and checked the Mission of Burma-inspired alphabetized lyric sheet to make sure that Robbins was saying “they” and not “we” in that line. Regardless of the pronoun or the authorial intent, the lyrics of “68” are simply devastating, just like its musical backing.

On a personal level, “68” now speaks to me like few other songs. I wrote the above two paragraphs sometime in 2009, at which point my father was battling two forms of cancer. He passed away in March of 2010. I can’t hear “I got the message / Calling me back home” without thinking of that phone call. I can’t think of “walking from the quarry to the wall” without thinking of his tireless work ethic, which involved an eighty-minute commute to and from Albany. Jon’s reading of the song as about Vietnam vets reminds me that my father fought in that war and worked to get other vets their proper medical compensation. And I can’t think of “And all they try to keep / Is slipping piece by piece / In spite of all attempts at holding on” without dwelling on how much my father meant to my entire family, and how every member struggles to fill that void. I still recognize that “68” could have been written about something entirely different, but unlike “Savory,” I’ve lost the ability to hear it fresh.

Jawbox's Jawbox

Jawbox, “Absenter”: Jawbox’s self-titled swan-song pulled the group in different directions: more direct (lead single “Mirrorful,” mid-tempo ballad “Iodine”), more rhythm-driven (the Barocas showcases “Won’t Come Off” and “His Only Trade”), more cathartic (“Desert Sea,” “Excandescent”). But its elliptical closer ties these urges together, finding an approachable song amid Barocas’s jazzy snare accents and J. Robbins’ oblique lyrics. Its opening lines—“Entropy’s in / Embroidered on skin / Corrupt, latch-hook thin for show”—have stuck with me as an indirect invitation to a world of J. Robbins’ creation. Based off of its second verse, “Absenter” could have been inspired by yard work or a stray animal, but the end result is a dream-like setting, all evening glimmers and scattered signs. Yet there’s considerable emotion here in “Save a little bit, save it / Send it back to me” and the gang vocals of the repeated title. This balancing act is supported by its cyclical structure, a graceful shifting between gears that could easily continue indefinitely instead of fading out into feedback.

Burning Airlines' 'Carnival' b/w 'Scissoring' single

Burning Airlines, “Scissoring”: Burning Airlines’ debut single arrived with considerable anticipation after I mail-ordered it from DeSoto Records in 1998, as it marked one of the first times a favorite group had splintered and then offered a new incarnation. “Carnival” b/w “Scissoring” ended up being the best-case scenario for the post-Jawbox era: two flawless rock songs on one slab of white vinyl that I would play to death until Mission: Control! came out the following year. I could have sworn that the catalog description on DeSoto’s web page read: “One is called ‘Carnival’ and is about a carnival. The other song is called ‘Scissoring’ and is about the French Revolution,” but when I consulted web.archive.org, it says that “Scissoring” is “a post-structuralist reading of the Happy Days episode where Fonzie tries to jump over the barrels on his motorcycle.” I would still like to believe that my memory is accurate and they merely changed the description before that December 1998 crawl.

Those descriptions only reveal the settings of their respective songs. “Carnival” ponders the state of rock music as it transitioned from grunge to alternative to modern rock in the ’90s, while “Scissoring” is a corrupted love song set in the French Revolution. The Mission: Control! version downplays the setting with a subtle shift from “Leave those acolytes on their knees” to “The end of anything so empty,” but I prefer the Reign of Terror overtones of the original take. Stressing the brutal violence of the historical context in that line seems more daring. Both versions have Robbins’ incisive harmonic riff, Bill Barbot’s fluid bass line, and Pete Moffett’s high-hat-heavy bridge, so if you only have the full-length version, you’re just missing those acolytes.

Burning Airlines' Mission: Control!

Burning Airlines, “The Escape Engine”: Mission: Control! is J. Robbins’ pop album, hailed with references to his fondness for XTC (along with the band name’s call-back to one of Brian Eno’s weirder pop songs). That comparison isn’t unwarranted—I can hear Drums and Wires and Black Sea in the up-tempo songs—but Mission: Control! doesn’t abandon D.C. post-punk, it just streamlines it. For pure hooks, it’s hard to top “The Escape Engine,” which is accompanied by a brain-burrowing “whee-ooh-wheeee-ooooh” vocal concept from Smart Went Crazy’s Chad Clark. The mammoth chorus of “Make the ending as good as the show / Burn as you go / No connection, no mission control” is ready for repeated drive-time sing-alongs. The irony of these hooks is two-fold: while ostensibly about a space pod plummeting to earth, “The Escape Engine” seems to address the broken relationship between Jawbox and Atlantic, and does so using radio-friendly melodies that A&R reps would drool over.

Burning Airlines' Identikit

Burning Airlines, “The Surgeon’s House”: Identikit, Burning Airlines’ second and final LP, offsets its prescient sense of Bush-era and post-9/11 unrest (“The Deluxe War Baby,” “Morricone Dancehall,” “Blind Trial”) with peepholes into J. Robbins’ personal life (mentioning his wife/future Channels bassist Janet Morgan by name in “Tastykake,” the poetic love of “A Song with No Words”). How “The Surgeon’s House” fits into this arrangement is up to a J. Robbins biographer to settle; it could be about the cold relationship between his parents or grandparents, or it could be remarkably inspired fiction about family, memory, and history. Whatever its origins, “The Surgeon’s House” explores novelistic depth in its lyrics and arrangement. Robbins’ careful delivery of “Where did my father find this photograph? / Where is the spite, the narrowed eyes? / She looked so beautiful in black and white” doesn’t reveal the emotional breakthrough, but his guitar work does, turning from empty-hall arpeggios to cathartically crashing chords. There’s no other song quite like “The Surgeon’s House” in J. Robbins’ catalog, but I would welcome another chapter.

Channels' Waiting on the Next End of the World

Channels, “To the New Mandarins”: Burning Airlines’ Identikit presaged the left’s discontent with the Bush administration, but Channels brought those undercurrents to the surface. I bet Robbins and drummer Darren Zentek’s political outrage was amplified by their gig moonlighting with Vic Bondi’s Report Suspicious Activity, since the direct approach of “To the New Mandarins” and other Channels tracks abandons Robbins’ usual obliqueness. (Regarding RSA, be sure to check out “The Loyal Opposition” from 2008’s Destroy All Evidence, a J. Robbins-fronted track.) I’m of mixed mind on this shift: I typically prefer my political outrage as vague as possible so as not to revisit songs as period pieces, but Channels’ execution makes a strong argument for a change in that policy. It’s a stealthy revelation, one that pushes “Mandarins” past other Channels contenders like “To Mt. Wilson from the Magpie Cage” and “The Licensee.”

“To the New Mandarins” begins with a fearsome foundation of Darren Zentek’s muscular drumming (which recalls his dominant work in Kerosene 454) and J. Robbins seething “Show ’em your Patriot Act!” like a protestor spitting venom on the street. These gut punches are counterbalanced by the song’s melodic touches, especially bassist Janet Morgan’s offset background vocals in the chorus. The specifics of the lyrics may date (“Pranking the homeland hotline / Threat level yellow sunshine”), but its sentiment will come in handy for future administrations.

Office of Future Plans' 'Harden Your Heart' single

Office of Future Plans, “Harden Your Heart” I debated not including the first single from J. Robbins’ newest band for one simple reason: it’s the only original song they’ve released to date. But it’s a damn good song that offers plenty of lyrical fodder to discuss where Robbins’ songwriting is twenty years after Novelty.

I hear “Harden Your Heart” as a self-reflective look at J. Robbins’ post-Channels years. “Losing your way / On familiar terrain / Perfecting your mistakes,” “Maybe it isn’t love that keeps you running in place,” “Parading in patterns you swore to break,” “Never let on / Never let in”; virtually every line of “Harden Your Heart” lingers on self-doubt. Is going back to a rock band simply reliving the past? Is Robbins comfortable with exposing his thoughts instead of obscuring them like he did in the past? “Harden Your Heart” asks a big question in its chorus—“Who are you now?”—and answers it with the self-assuring “More than the sum of your doubts.” The chanted title shows how ridiculous the internal opposition sounds when put in context—less an act of oblique poetry, more a stubborn embrace of cowardice.

In order for this self-assurance to ring true, “Harden Your Heart” must be a triumphant reinvigoration of form for Robbins. That’s a more difficult task than you might imagine, since Channels’ two releases were often greeted with “They’re solid, but that’s what we expected” shrugs, even from me. Their execution—the pristine production, the confident, experienced performances, the informed arrangements—would be jaw-dropping from an unknown act, but it was simply more of the same for Robbins. Fortunately, “Harden Your Heart” walks the thin line between mixing things up and playing to its strengths. Robbins and fellow Channels holdover Darren Zentek cede space to the newcomers, with Zentek in particular pulling back from the tom pounding that hammered down Channels songs. Bassist Brooks Harlan lurks in the low-end like Kim Coletta did and adds enthusiastic backing vocals to the chorus. Cellist Gordon Withers finds the best approach for each section, switching between uneasy sawing, stable whole notes, and chugging patterns. The end result recalls the tenor of Channels, the energy of Burning Airlines, and the dynamics of Jawbox without sounding too much like any of them. It is a triumphant reinvigoration of form, one that has me foaming at the mouth for their upcoming LP.

Footnote #1: An apology to J. Robbins. In an interview with Aural States, he mentioned “I don’t like to see my name [laughs]. I think it’s always cooler, the idea of a band is kinda cooler–this construct.” It’s an entirely fair, completely logical point that would prevent me from discussing four bands within a single timeline. J., if you happen to read this piece, I have to warn you: your name appears a lot.

Footnote #2:I considered making a separate list for “The Ten: Bands That Remind Me of Jawbox,” which resulted in me pulling out Pilot to Gunner’s Games at High Speed and Get Saved and singing along to both for a few weeks.