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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.

The Ten: A Girls Against Boys Sampler

Girls Against Boys, Live in Chicago 9/6/2002

My two favorite groups in high school, Hum and Girls Against Boys, represented a vast stylistic divide in 1990s alternative rock. Hum’s space-rock gazes longingly at the stars; Girls Against Boys’ bass-driven post-punk aims straight for the gut (if not lower). Hum represented the Midwest’s particular brand of introspective guitar rock; Girls Against Boys pulled a lineage of DC punk and hardcore into the postmodern affectations of New York City. Whereas Hum’s lyrical depth and emotional resonance appealed to the core principles of my musical tastes at the time, Girls Against Boys felt like the exception to those rules.

Substance? Girls Against Boys’ style is their substance. Unlike so many other groups dependent upon style, GVSB subvert any noticeable rock clichés through equal doses of brute force, postmodern ironic detachment, and electrifying urgency. Scott McCloud’s raspy charisma winks at any lyric that’s too neat, any setting that’s too clean. Out of context—hell, often in context—individual lyrics sound like mistranslated non sequiturs, come-ons from lounge crooner wannabes, or slurred threats from the menacing guy at the end of the bar. Yet somehow they make perfect sense in the moment of McCloud’s delivery, drawing you into the group’s precise, bass-heavy throb.

Girls Against Boys, Live in Chicago 9/6/2002

There are a few other notable two-bass line-ups from the 1990s—Ned’s Atomic Dustbin’s Grebo Brit-rock, Dianogah’s bass-only instrumentals, Ganger’s Krautrock-influenced post-rock—but Girls Against Boys’ post-hardcore style gels perfectly with Johnny Temple and Eli Janney’s low-end thrusts. Janney alternates between a sampler keyboard and his custom metal bass, and in both situations, his lines add melody and depth to Temple’s solid foundation. Alexis Fleisig’s floor-tom-heavy drumming combines equal parts power and precision, throttling each fill without going overboard or detracting from the group’s focus. It’s rare that a group’s guitarist can be overshadowed by its rhythm section, but McCloud made due, adding texture to the top of the mix, ducking into the lower registers for bonus rumble, and strafing the bassists with razor-wire riffs. Math-rock time-signature fetishists look elsewhere; Girls Against Boys songs locked into their savage grooves and pummeled them into submission.

Many critics now herald Girls Against Boys’ 1993 LP Venus Luxure #1 Baby as a classic of 1990s indie/alternative rock and dismiss the rest of their catalog as dry runs or pale imitation. I can’t disagree with the first part—Venus Luxure is their best record by a fair margin and among my top ten albums of the decade—what propelled me into obsession was the depth of GVSB’s catalog. Sure, their first two releases showed growing pains and Freak*on*ica was a major-label disaster, but even those albums have their rewards. Their Touch and Go years were remarkably fruitful for LPs, EPs, and singles. I’ve chosen to select songs from each major release and a few additional highlights, which means Venus Luxure and its Touch and Go brethren are sorely underrepresented, but you should go out and buy those three albums if you don’t already own them. I’ve included MP3s for the rarer material and YouTube links whenever possible.

Girls Against Boys' Nineties vs Eighties EP

“Stay in the Car” – For the start of the group and the Eighties half of this EP, DC-area producer Eli Janney joined Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty and Soulside singer Scott McCloud for some regrettable synth-/sample-heavy industrial post-punk. I view the Nineties half of this EP as the group’s true beginning, since Girls Against Boys immediately hit their stride once McCloud’s former Soulside band mates, drummer Alexis Fleisig and bassist Johnny Temple, joined the fold. “Stay in the Car” starts off with Janney’s shuddering sampler bass, but soon enough Fleisig’s forceful, swinging beat, Temple’s deep bass line, and Scott McCloud’s howling guitar create the first signature GVSB groove. The vague lyrics—“Step one / Stay in the car,” “A pat on the back from the president,” “We need some gun control / We need the Marlboro Man”—might not sound like much on paper, but combined with the group’s locked-down rhythmic drive, these stray phrases evoke an urgent, action movie dreamscape.

Girls Against Boys' 
Tropic of Scorpio

“Matching Wits with Flaming Frank” – Girls Against Boys reconvened for their 1992 debut LP, Tropic of Scorpio, but like its EP predecessor, it’s a mixed affair. Between lounge-flavored songs like the “Everything I Do Seems to Cost Me $20” and the noisy experimentation of “Plush,” there’s a lack of focus and consistency antithetical to their Touch and Go output, even if they’re intriguing diversions. Thankfully, the first three songs bridge the gap between this loose approach and the intensity of their later work. “Matching Wits with Flaming Frank” isn’t as dynamic as “My Night of Pleasure (with the Mudjacking Contractors)” or as catchy as “Wow Wow Wow,” but a powerhouse performance from Alexis Fleisig and Scott McCloud’s raspy delivery of “I had to burst into flames” and “Who loves you?” make it the highlight of Tropic of Scorpio.

Girls Against Boys' Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby

“Bulletproof Cupid” –The best Girls Against Boys songs add a palpable sense of danger to Scott McCloud’s hedonistic domain, a point perfectly illustrated by the descent into chaos in “Bulletproof Cupid.” Setting the scene with another nighttime, sex-fueled car ride (“Stop the machine / If you see something you could like”) driven by McCloud’s cruise-control-at-85-mph guitar figure, “Bulletproof Cupid” escalates the tension with chants of “It’s a lot more physical right now” and “X-x-x-press it now” above the menacing rumble of Temple’s bass and Janney’s droning keyboard. Soon enough, it heightens to “It’s gonna paralyze you / By the shine of your head” before McCloud slurs “Paralyze you / Til I’m fuckin’ dead.” With that violent end-game on the table, the car veers off the road. Alexis Fleisig pummels everything in sight amidst Janney’s panicked yells of “Lies! Lies!” before the song jerks back into control. It’s a mesmerizing transition cemented by McCloud’s brutal dose of black humor: “Nobody’s perfect.” Anyone could get sucked into this chase for carnal physicality, anyone could veer off course into an unforeseen, violent end. Nobody’s perfect.

“Learned It” – There’s no heavier bass sound in Girls Against Boys’ discography than the initial sucker punch of “Learned It,” a murderous combination of Temple’s bass guitar and Janney’s sampler bass. The doubled bass line reloads its massive, two-note pattern with higher register runs at the end of each phrase, but it never loses its potency. The guitar line? Entirely irrelevant, but McCloud’s “I got one shot” is the perfect refrain for this beat-down. As much as I love this bass sound, I do enjoy this alternate live-in-studio take of the song from their Eight Rounds split EP with Guided by Voices that chooses clean piano over Janney’s usual distorted bass keyboard sound.

I could easily gone with any number of other V-Lux highlights, like the confident charm of “In Like Flynn” (“Say you like that you’re gonna love this”), the woozy pop of “Go Be Delighted,” the straight-ahead chug of “Let Me Come Back” (later turned into a cover of “Boogie Wonderland” for the group’s appearance as a bar band in 200 Cigarettes), or the dream-like calm of “Bug House,” but I’ll reluctantly move on.

Girls Against Boys' Cruise Yourself

“Tucked In” – Not just the opening track for Cruise Yourself, “Tucked In” is its public address announcement. “Is everybody tucked in / Is everybody tucked in / Now that’s what I like to see” posits Scott McCloud as steward on GVSB Comfort Air, hitting New York, Chicago (Chicago Chicago), and Los Angeles. The lyrical repetition is mirrored in the off-kilter, looped bass line and Fleisig’s tom-heavy pattern of the verses, the latter of which finally opens up with the chorus’s carefully controlled feedback and Janney’s panned “Comfort air / Comfort ride / Comfort flex / Comfort zone” backing vocals. Yet “opening up” is misleading—after all, “Way into the trance thing” is the dominant phrase—since the song eschews the chance for a Venus Luxure fever pitch in favor of a melancholic second half showing the wear and tear of the Cruise Yourself lifestyle. McCloud finds “No room to swing” in this new routine and the song ends with a vastly different intonation of the “Is everybody tucked in” mantra. The album switches gears to the double-bass body blow of “Cruise Your New Baby Fly Self,” but it’s telling that GVSB didn’t choose to start the album with “One more time with feeling / One more time with style.” “Tucked In” may not have the head-nodding, ass-shaking grooves of “Kill the Sexplayer,” the desperation of lead single “[I] Don’t Got a Place,” or lurid depths of “Explicitly Yours,” but its idea of GVSB as lifestyle runs through all of Cruise Yourself.

“Magattraction” – When I first saw Girls Against Boys at Mercury Lounge in New York City in the spring of 1998, I’d already picked up virtually everything they’d put out, so hearing them launch into a unfamiliar song was a huge surprise. “Magattraction” was the lead track on the 1994 Jabberjaw: Good to the Last Drop compilation, which also featured Unwound, Jawbox, and the loathed Hole, but it had been extracted as a b-side for the recent “Psycho Future” single. Presumably recorded during the 1993 recording sessions for the superb Venus Luxure #1 Baby, “Magattraction” matches the quality of that record, if not the atmosphere. “Magattraction” teases with ironic catharsis like “Got no rhythm, got no soul,” but with palm-muted pulses, a rumbling bass war, and a shouted climax of “Shake it / Shoot it,” hedonism wins out in the end.

Other Girls Against Boys rarities worth checking out include the lo-fi rocker “Red Bar,” which first appeared on the 1993 Enragez Vous! compilation and was later included as a one-sided single accompanying the initial vinyl pressing of Cruise Yourself, and their cover of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” from the 1995 A Means to an End tribute album. Their CD singles aren’t rare by any means, but do feature some solid tracks, especially pre-Cruise Yourself single “Sexy Sam.” It’s the only other non-album cut that rivals “Magattraction.”

Girls Against Boys' House of GVSB

“Super-Fire” – Thanks to its light-bulb-smashing video appearing on 120 Minutes, Super-Fire” was the first GVSB song I heard. Between Scott McCloud’s nearly indecipherable phrases (“When you got nothing in the lemon,” “X-head is x-vibe”), Eli Janney’s wah’ed out bass, and the bizarre background noise/vocals in the chorus, it’s a great litmus test for the group’s allure. Not everything is so oblique: that rapid-fire, note-bending guitar lead is killer, the bass groove is seductive, and “Nothing satisfies” could easily be the title of a GVSB bio-pic. McCloud even throws in “Can you decide what the fuck is going on?” as a potentially self-referential lyric. It trades the danger of V-Lux for an endlessly listenable sheen, perfect for the lead single and track from their second-best LP. If memory serves, Girls Against Boys signed with Geffen under the agreement that House of GVSB would be their Touch & Go swansong. Missing out on the polish and poise of House must’ve been a thorn in the side of Geffen and a last laugh for Touch & Go, especially given the quality of what Geffen did release.

Girls Against Boys' Freak*on*ica

“Park Avenue” I’ll offer up a startling admission: I enjoyed Freak*on*ica when it came out. Sure, I missed the Ted Niceley production values, but as a seventeen-year-old participant on the group’s listserv (which netted me a vinyl copy of Freak*on*ica and a now ratty t-shirt from the resident Geffen rep), it was easy to get swept up in the rush of a new album. Did I think it was their best record yet? Of course not, but I sure played a lot of Top Gear on the Super Nintendo with Freak*on*ica as the soundtrack. These songs also sound much better in their set lists than on record, a point that initially made me like this record more. See, these songs aren’t that much different from their previous records! That view soon changed to a recognition that I’d rather listen to albums not utilizing Pitchshifter's aesthetic blueprint.

Despite not listening to Freak*on*ica in years, lead single “Park Avenue” recently crept into my workout mix. Scott McCloud’s opening line “Check your lifespan” was spat back in GVSB’s face by countless reviewers (ha ha, no, you check your lifespan, Girls Against Boys), but “Park Avenue” is still the best song from the record. Janney’s pulsating keyboard build-up, a doubled-up riff from Temple and McCloud, and a solid (if unspectacular) foundation from Fleisig push things forward with polished, mechanical efficiency. The issue with “Park Avenue,” and Freak*on*ica as a whole, is how Nick Launey’s production neuters GVSB’s style. Its predecessor, House of GVSB, was a well-oiled machine, but there were dark places on that album (“Life in Pink,” “Zodiac Love Team”), varied aesthetics, back-alley dealings. McCloud had a smokiness to his voice, like he’d been in the corner booth of a dive bar for the last week and a half. Launey pulled their aesthetic into prime-time, into the safe glitz of the new Times Square the band calls out on “One Firecracker.” Janney’s keyboards become the driving element, turning GVSB into another industrial-lite band. Stray effects clutter the mix, instantly dating the album. McCloud’s vocals are embarrassingly processed, smoothed down to a cartoonish whine. If the best GVSB songs are predicated upon the threat of danger, the worst songs eliminate this possibility entirely. Consider Freak*on*ica their PG record.

“One Dose of Truth” – Given a chance to switch up their routine, Girls Against Boys wrote their most new wave–inspired track for the soundtrack to Series 7: The Contenders, a reality television satire from 2001. Recalling Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” one of the few non-GVSB songs in the film, “One Dose of Truth” combines plaintive synth-orchestra lines, atypically melodic guitar arpeggios, and Eli Janney’s soothing background vocals with some of the group’s most direct, Geffen-taunting hooks. Scott McCloud’s lyrical bent has skewered corrupt popular culture since House of GVSB, so the refrain of “All we need from you / Is one dose of truth” echoes throughout much of their catalog, especially their final album, 2002’s You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See. There’s also an alternate take on this melody on the soundtrack, the short instrumental “I Knew Her…,” which adds some acoustic guitar to nice effect.

Girls Against Boys' You Can't Fight What You Can't See

“The Come Down” – Tipped off by "One Dose of Truth," Girls Against Boys’ final album completes the switch in Scott McCloud’s lyrics from creating and living in his own private, hyper-cool metropolitan universe to explicitly critiquing the quality of actual popular culture. While the lyrical approach may have changed, You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See returns to the musical template of those Touch and Go albums, loaded with sharp hooks and tight structures. “The Come Down” ventures closest to their old haunts, with McCloud opining “Around here night goes on too long” over a polished keyboard hook from Janney. The spaced-out bridge provides some rarified space for McCloud’s curious serenade of “Like a landslide / Through your mind / I like your style” before closing out with the elliptical guitar riff setting off one final round. “The Come Down” and the album-ending slow-jam “Let It Breathe” form such an evocative combination of bang and whimper that it seems fitting that they haven’t recorded a follow-up.

2009 Postscript – Although they’re officially on hiatus, GVSB still occasionally play shows, usually in Europe (they hit up Poland and Russia this spring). If they ever decide to properly tour the States again, I’ll have to fight the urge to stalk them up and down the East Coast. Scott McCloud released his first LP as Paramount Styles last year, an acoustically oriented project with Alexis Fleisig in tow. Fleisig replaced Damon Che as the drummer of Bellini, who released The Precious Prize of Gravity in May. Eli Janney still produces bands. Johnny Temple runs Akashic Books. If you want go backwards, you can check out Soulside’s Soon Come Happy for a taste of Scott, Johnny, and Alexis’s days in the DC hardcore scene, early Edsel singles for Eli’s falsetto background vocals and sampler, and New Wet Kojak for late-night moisture.

2013 Update - A recent string of European festival dates in honor of the 20th anniversary of Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby turns out to be more than an overseas vacation. Girls Against Boys announced three American dates in September (NYC, Philly, and DC) and, more importantly, a new EP. You can hear the new song "It's a Diamond Life" via Soundcloud.

Two added side gigs: Alexis Fleisig now drums in Obits alongside former Drive Like Jehu / Hot Snakes vocalist Rick Froberg and former Edsel frontman Sohrab Habibion. Eli Janney does the production-centric Input Output podcast with another former Edsel member, Geoff Sanoff. Closing that loop, Janney and Sanoff have produced both Obits LPs.