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Concert Review: Jawbox at The Sinclair

Jawbox at The Sinclair

“An Impartial Overview,” Jawbox’s chosen title for their reunion tour, works only in theory. Perhaps the band themselves can look upon their back catalog with the dry objectivity promised by that lyric from “Chinese Fork Tie,” but for fans of the band, approaching the group’s first proper tour dates since 1997 (a humble, presumably unintended finale on Valentine’s Day in Rochester, NY) with anything close to detachment is an impossible order. The 2009 performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon was both blessing and curse: it was wonderful to see Jawbox’s four members on the same stage again, gracing a new audience with the brilliance of “Savory,” but what if that short set was truly the end? For the next decade, I crossed names off the wish list of bands I’d initially missed due to youth or stupidity, but Jawbox remained in all caps. Its members weren’t all hibernating: J. Robbins added to his considerable catalog with Office of Future Plans and his just-issued solo album Un-Becoming while the instrumental Bells≥ pushed Zach Barocas’s considerable chops. There were reasons not to reunite, of course, but if their former single-mates Jawbreaker could do it, why not Jawbox? By the time “An Impartial Overview” was finally announced in January, how could impartiality be expected?

Jawbox at The Sinclair

It’s been 23 years since I could conceivably have been impartial about Jawbox. I first knowingly heard the DC band on MTV’s 120 Minutes, presumably with the July 7th, 1996 debut of the human Kerplunk video for “Mirrorful” from their 1996 self-titled album. Their appeal was immediate yet lasting: urgent, melodic guitar rock loaded with lyrical and compositional depth. The reason I taped 120 Minutes was to find music that offered more, that engaged me more, and “Mirrorful” did just that. The distrust of the slanted histories (“Annex and index / Mirror too perfect”) I undoubtedly read that year in social studies resonated strongly, but the combination of J. Robbins and Bill Barbot’s parrying guitar lines, Kim Coletta’s clear and forceful bass, and Zach Barocas’s ingenious fills made me pick up Jawbox on my next CD-shopping excursion. And as was the case with many of the indie/alternative bands I found via 120 Minutes or college radio, the album tracks grabbed me as much, if not more than the lead single. Wrapping my head around the complex rhythms of “Won’t Come Off,” the explosive dynamics of “Desert Sea,” and the lyrical enigmas of “Absenter” kept Jawbox in rotation and prompted purchases of their earlier records, which offered different, but similarly rewarding combinations of immediacy and lasting intrigue.

Jawbox at The Sinclair

Jawbox announced their break-up on their web site in 1997, but said site offered a literal gateway to like-minded music. Kim Coletta and Bill Barbot ran DeSoto Records (inheriting it from the members of Edsel), and every order I made with DeSoto brought along a new favorite band: Burning Airlines, Shiner, Juno, The Dismemberment Plan, Beauty Pill, Faraquet, and others. In contrast to many other independent labels, their release schedule was manageable and their hit rate was near-flawless. If they released it, I would buy it and almost certainly love it. None of these bands were carbon copies of Jawbox, which makes sense: if musicians were smart enough to like Jawbox (and in turn, be liked by Jawbox), they were smart enough to do something different and compelling on its own accord. (That statement applies to DeSoto bands, but not all of the bands influenced by Jawbox. The deepest reaches of my CD collection will attest that it was quite possible to sound very much like Jawbox without retaining their creative spirit.) It’s worth noting how much timing factors into my Jawbox-centric worldview: if I’d been five years older and/or had cooler friends, I would’ve learned about Fugazi first, then worked my way through the Dischord catalog and found out about Jawbox that way. Instead, the major label gambits of both Jawbox and Shudder to Think introduced them first and encouraged me to work my way back to Dischord.

Jawbox at The Sinclair

Jawbox’s legacy in 2019 resides primarily within the context of intelligent, inventive guitar rock (that doesn’t skimp on melody), which, as ever, does not dominate the zeitgeist. A flash of mainstream influence came when the Deftones covered “Savory,” but Jawbox’s musical DNA lingers on a smaller scale. Many of my favorites from Exploding in Sound Records’ roster, past and present, display some degree of Jawbox genetics: Grass Is Green, Speedy Ortiz, Two Inch Astronaut. Other bands, like the ever-recommended Hammer No More the Fingers, have come into my radar thanks to J. Robbins’ production credits. Availability is the other side of legacy, and fortunately Jawbox’s records have been reissued by DeSoto via Dischord and remain in print. These reissues are not extravagant, vault-emptying collections. True to the Dischord mindset, these carefully remastered pressings exist to maintain a presence, to allow people to hear the records if they so choose. While it would be nice if Jawbox were the beneficiaries of a major critical re-evaluation, the concept of revisiting these records with fresh ears is a conundrum to me: at no point did I stop listening to Jawbox.

Judging by the first two official shows of An Impartial Overview, I am not alone in maintaining my Jawbox fandom for the last twenty years. After a warm-up show in Baltimore, Jawbox came up to Cambridge to play two nights at The Sinclair. It took time for the venue to fill up the first night—I joked about babysitters running late—but by the time Jawbox hit the stage, personal space was at a minimum. The opening acts for the respective shows deserve mention. Friday’s opener was the Philadelphia-based Second Letter, whose lineup includes Burning Airlines drummer Peter Moffett (who also handles the drums for J. Robbins’ Un-Becoming and Bill Barbot’s new band Foxhall Stacks). The five-piece delivered a layered combination of epic guitar rock, power pop, and early ’00s post-emo. My interest waxed when they leaned into the bigger riffs and waned when I recalled bands like The Gloria Record. The opener for the second night was Brooklyn’s LAPêCHE, whose two most recent releases (the 2017 LP The Second Arrow and the 2019 EP Spirit Bunnies) were recorded by J. Robbins. Vocalist/guitarist Krista Holly Diem maintained a careful balance of melancholy and melody over her band’s considered arrangements, and Spirit Bunnies is worthy, quick introduction.

Jawbox at The Sinclair

As Jawbox launched into “Mirrorful” to start their Friday set—a fitting rewind to my initial introduction—I was immeasurably pleased that all four members were on stage. I’ve seen enough reunited/reformed bands with substitutes to appreciate a full turnout, and all four members of Jawbox were essential to this equation. I’ve seen J. Robbins play some of these songs acoustically, drawing out their melodic depth, but on these nights he was totally galvanized. Bill Barbot had exited from Burning Airlines by the first time I caught that band, so seeing him on stage helped me gain a new appreciation for and understanding of his role in Jawbox. Not only does he excel as a foil (he absolutely nails the falsetto outro of “Cornflake Girl”) and periodic lead vocalist (“Tongue” and “Breathe”), his heavy chord progressions are critical to songs like “Desert Sea.” I tried picturing any other drummer navigating the minefields Zach Barocas laid out on For Your Own Special Sweetheart and Jawbox and simply could not; in hindsight it makes perfect sense that Jawbox could not continue after his departure in 1997. Kim Coletta was the stand-out of both evenings. I’d never seen a performer beam with such joy, a contagious feeling that was explained by a second-night anecdote about her current day-job of teaching third-graders. In contrast with wrangling a room full of nine-year-olds, playing bass on stage for the first time in over two decades has to feel pretty great.

In the months leading up to these shows, Jawbox posted numerous photos of their basement rehearsals to their Facebook profile, which assured me of the obvious: they did not take this opportunity lightly. They needed to sound like an active band and they pulled it off. I can safely say I saw Jawbox, not a nostalgia-fueled simulacrum of “Jawbox” (an admittedly narrow distinction that’s nevertheless at the heart of why some reunions fall flat). With over twenty songs each night, the set lists highlighted the depth of Jawbox’s catalog, prompting relatively minor grumbles from even the staunchest devotee over exclusions (three such candidates: “Spit Bite,” “U-Trau,” and “Excandescent”). The lone representative from their debut album was “Grip,” which felt like less of a token inclusion and more of a demonstration of how much they could improve that material. Novelty’s finest moments made the cut, including the updated lyrics for “Static.” For Your Own Special Sweetheart and Jawbox (along with essential b-side “68”) correctly comprised the bulk of both evenings, showing how those albums have only improved with age.

Jawbox at The Sinclair

Two particular songs stood out. The number of phones raised to record “Savory” confirmed its place as Jawbox’s most beloved song, a sentiment that was upheld by masterful performances both nights. “Tension and release” is the go-to expression, but “Savory” is more tension and relief, the latter represented by the deep exhale of the elongated “Easy now” section. What struck me was how well they underplayed that passage—not only was it quieter with regard to volume, it was gentler in terms of picks hitting strings and sticks hitting drums. Few bands command such restraint, let alone while playing their most cherished song to a rapturous audience twenty-two years after an initial split, and as much as I enjoyed them throwing their bodies into up-tempo tracks like “FF=66” and “Won’t Come Off,” the luxurious lulls in “Savory” stuck with me the most. I couldn’t fathom these sets without “Savory,” and yet shortly after it on both nights, Jawbox pulled a truly unexpected card from their sleeves for the encore: a cover of Drew O’Doherty’s “The Robbery” (here’s my video from night two). J. Robbins had recently relayed his fondness for the song, perhaps tipping Jawbox’s hand, but I doubt O’Doherty—who shared the bill for J. Robbins’ two Boston-area acoustic dates over the last decade—had any expectations of Jawbox playing one of his songs. Merely getting back together was supposed to be the big surprise, not adding a new song to their repertoire, but true to form, Jawbox never settled for simple.

Jawbox’s members were sheepishly grateful for the audience’s ongoing enthusiasm, noting with bewilderment that these shows marked the first time in the group’s existence that they had a multi-night stay at a venue. I suspect that most people in attendance wished that residence could continue longer, both for further opportunities to see the band and to delay the sense that these shows may truly be it. I hesitate to accept such finality, however. Not only will I hold onto the thin shred of hope that Jawbox may re-reunite again down the road, but I know that their records have held up this long, and still offer mysteries to solve and pathways to pursue.