Monday, August 25, 2008

1990 - it's a liar's quirk

While their debut full-length only comes in at number seven here, Jawbreaker, and more importantly Blake Schwarzenbach, is one of the most important, influential bands for me. Hearing Dear You and 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, along with Jets to Brazil’s catalog, changed my life in high school. Schwarzenbach’s lyrics, eloquently descriptive in a way that was both dramatically poetic and journalistically direct, were mini-epics inside my head that felt written specifically for me, even if they detailed events I would never see. I totally get why Jawbreaker gets the emo tag; there’s a lot of angst in these songs. But the details set this band apart. Emo as a genre has gotten more and more reductive (or, ya know… sexist), to the point where women are either whores or saviors. Blake never went that route, showing an understanding for both sexes rarely heard in rock and/or roll. Blake is of a handful of musicians I want to interview one day, along with Robert Smith, John Darnielle, and J. Robbins. I mean, I’ve already bothered learning how to spell his last name, which is more than can be said for Andy Greenwald in Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo. He’s still a great writer and it’s a great book, but he spells Blake’s last name as “Schwartzenbach.” I prefer the Nate Adams spelling, “Shwarzenblat.”

10. Soul Asylum – And the Horse They Rode In On

Soul Asylum had already cranked out three albums and a B-sides collection in the ’80s before dropping And the Horse They Rode In On, but it wasn’t until this album came out in 1990 that the band began to emerge from the shadow of other Minneapolis bands (*kaff!* The Replacements! *kaff!*). While the band would go on to even better things on 1992’s Grave Dancers Union, Soul Asylum’s mix of alt-rock and alt-country was already nearing its potency here. Songs like “Spinnin’” and “Gullible’s Travels” contained twangin’ and stompin’ and some sweet guitar atmospherics. Frontman Dave Pirner was already on his way to sad sack wonderdom with lines like “Everything’s turning / but mostly just turning out wrong.” Overall, Horse turns out to be an underappreciated gem from an underappreciated band.

9. Social Distortion – Social Distortion

Ah, Mike Ness, you charmer you. Despite being a Californian, Ness has a great suggestion of a Southern twang. Social D’s bluegrassy punk rock picks right up where X left off, swapping the urban fallout for more personal demons like drinking and ex-lovers. Social Distortion is another of those albums where I can’t believe it’s not a best of. “Let It Be Me,” “Story of My Life,” and the awesome Johnny Cash cover “Ring of Fire” all originate here. The top track for me, though, is “Ball and Chain,” perhaps the penultimate “I don’t want to be here” song. Ness says it’s about fighting drug addiction, but you could just as easily take it as a song about breaking free from bad relationships. Either way, it’s a great song.

8. The Sundays – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

Tagged as a less bitter, lady-version of The Smiths, The Sundays emerged and returned to seeming nothingness during the late ’80s and ’90s. The group’s first album, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, pretty much set up the band’s M.O. – dreamy guitar leads over an acoustic strum, coupled with frontwoman Harriet Wheeler’s adorably British vocals. While The Smiths comparison really only extends to the music, there’s still plenty for me to love about The Sundays. I was introduced to the band through the Buffy the Vampire Slayer soundtrack, and re-educated by the lovely and/or talented Michelle K. Muir. I honestly can see The Sundays as a precursor to the female singer/songwriter boom of the ’90s just as folks like Iggy Pop or Jim Morrison were to punk. Of course, the quality of The Sundays’ output (three immaculate pop albums) far exceeds the likes of Paula Cole or Joan Osborne. While I’m glad the band eventually broke up so that Wheeler and husband/guitarist David Gavurin could focus on raising children, I hope they take a crack at another LP once the kids get a bit older.

7. Jawbreaker – Unfun

Formed in 1988 and disbanded in 1996, Jawbreaker put out four amazing alternative/punk records, each of which has powerfully affected my life. Their first album, Unfun, took the longest for me to appreciate. Each Jawbreaker album has its own identity, but Unfun catches the band developing an one. Sure, many key elements are in place: Drummer Adam Pfahler’s forceful flash is already there, and you can tell bassist Chris Bauermeister has serious muscle to bend his metal strings. But frontman Blake Schwarzenbach’s lyrics are less driven by guilt and scene politics here. They have more of a college literary magazine quality to them – dense and dark and fairly hard to remember in entirety – but he still knew how to craft a hook or two, like on opening track “Want,” a song that is insanely catchy despite its off-kilter chorus, or on the religious “Eye-5.” After sitting with the record for a few years, I’ve come to love Unfun’s resistance to certain standards. It’s punky and unwieldy like Nirvana’s Bleach, and similarly a prequel to something even greater.

6. Jane’s Addiction – Ritual de lo Habitual

For a long while, Ritual de lo Habitual was the masterstroke finale to an L.A. band obsessed with sex and decadence and drugs and rock and/or roll. Of course, the 2003 reunion record Strays fucked that up for everyone. But it’s still fun to listen to the original Jane’s Addiction line-up on Ritual, so alive and ready to rock. The band was still writing kitschy novelty songs in 1990, a la hit single “Been Caught Stealing,” but listeners get plenty of more serious material too. Opening number “Stop” is a hodgepodge of California metal, frontman Jerry Perrell’s skewed worldview – almost child-like in its innocence – and Latino leanings. The epic “Three Days” captures the band at its most expansive, revealing that, for all of their hip trappings, Jane’s Addiction was really just a very sexy band of old souls.

5. Green Day – 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours

Pop punkers Green Day (née Sweet Children) were secretly schooled in The Beatles’ pop leanings, something evident in frontman Billy Joe Armtrong’s clean and clear choruses. While the band would get catchier, and really, better, with Kerplunk! and the albums that followed it, 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours shows how much of the band’s aesthetic was already in place from the beginning. A collection of early EPs, Slappy Hours is steeped in Lennon/McCartney songwriting, with a dash of Descendents and Stiff Little Fingers thrown in. People give Armstrong grief for singing with a British accent, but really, can you blame him when his best influences were from across the pond?

4. Depeche Mode – Violator

The last truly great Depeche Mode record found the band getting darker and more withdrawn. Gone are the socio-political commentaries and personal outreaches. This record is focused solely on the self-absorption of a sexier idea of Depeche Mode. Make them your personal Jesus and they’ll show you the world in their eyes. Alan Gore’s sonic experimentation was streamlined here as well, focused on moods more than textures, if that makes any sense.

3. Sonic Youth – Goo

Goo has my favorite Sonic Youth song: “Kool Thing.” “Hey Kool Thing,” Kim Gordon dares him. “C’mere, sit down beside me. There’s something I gotta ask. I just wanna know… what are you gonna do for me? I mean, are you gonna liberate us girls from male, white, corporate oppression?” Chuck D, of all people, cheers her on from the sidelines with “Tell ‘em where it hurts. Let er’rybody know!” Stomp and noise, Sonic Youth’s best known qualities, are still here, but they’re coupled with a more pointed mania.

2. Concrete Blonde – Bloodletting

I love this moody, gothic piece of awesomeness. On tracks like “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)” and “Sky is a Poisonous Garden,” Concrete Blonde crafts this sort of glam rock/goth hybrid, black and delightful in its execution. Of course, any good gothic masterpiece (oh hey Disintegration, what’s up?) needs some dreamy pop soundscapes as well. Concrete Blonde ably delivers such treats with “Caroline,” “Lullabye,” and my favorite CB song, the soothsaying “Tomorrow, Wendy.” I’d love for indie to take a sonic turn away from easy listening towards this particular avenue of songwriting. In the meantime, I’m just going to have to sleep with this record on repeat, hoping it lends my dreams a romantic sensibility and a handful of choice guitar chords.

1. Fugazi – Repeater

Perhaps more brutal than the band’s debut, Fugazi’s Repeater is just as brilliant. By this point in the band’s life, Guy Picciotto was a full-time member, even rocking a six-stringer right next to Ian MacKaye. Picciotto’s songwriting took a huge leap forward after his time with emocore fathers Rites of Spring. I hesitate to call it smarter lyrically… less visceral, more polychromatic, maybe. Whatever the case, Picciotto continued to grow and rule hard here. MacKaye meanwhile, continued to dominate. His voice has an everyman anger to it. I understand why some metal/technical hardcore bands go for a deeper growl, something akin to a grizzly bear having hate-sex with a chainsaw. But ultimately, that style sounds too forced and jumbled to me. When I hear MacKaye shout on Repeater, I hear palpable rage and righteous humanity. I feel like I’m actually communicating with a person, lending extra force to lyrics like “You are not what you own.”

NEXT WEEK: teen spirit and the meaning of swirling, 1991.

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