It was theme night at Devon Record Club and we were excited! Graham’s somewhat bizarre theme of ‘bands that did or did not have hair’ was interpreted by myself and Nick as ‘bands that are from Washington DC, one of which contains the producer of the album by the other’. Obviously, that was what Graham meant when he set the theme and surely Nick and I deserve bonus points for correctly deciphering Graham’s complex coding system. Rob and Graham, whilst undeniably picking bands that either had or did not have hair (although in the case of Gary Numan, maybe not), failed miserably to bring records that fulfilled all aspects of the theme seeing as neither of their choices hailed from the capital of the USA or had members that had even the remotest to do with the production of The Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I. Losers!
But even if Graham hadn’t set the theme, For Your Own Special Sweetheart has always been high on my list of albums to bring to Record Club and I may well have brought it to Round 56 anyway. For some inexplicable reason (at least as far as I am concerned) Sweetheart never made much of an impact on its release and I knew that it would be a first time listen for the others. And despite the album taking a few plays to fully appreciate (Nick’s assertion that the songs sound a tad homogenous on first aquaintances being totally valid) I have always found the combination of skillfully written pop songs played with no little skill emanating from the hardcore end of US alt-rock pretty irresistable. Girls vs Boys managed it whilst throwing in a funky groove sex thing, Jawbox is much more straight ahead rock; invariably a pounding, pummelling start to a song evolves into something sweetly melodic and really rather beautiful…similar, I suppose to what Husker Du were doing towards the end of their career but with less tinny production and a musical path that harks back to early REM, Replacements and Buckingham Nicks rather than The Beatles and The Byrds. There’s a directness to Jawbox’s sound that can quickly become addictive and after a few listens individual songs begin to rise out of the homogeny of the album to reveal themselves in all their glory.
Graham stated that he found the first half of Sweetheart much catchier than the second. Maybe so, but I suspect what actually caught his attention was the inital one-two-three sucker punch of the bruising FF=66, the (ironically) sweet Savory and then the buzz saw call and response of Breathe. It’s breathless (!) stuff and a startling way to begin an album. Whenever I put Sweetheart on my turntable, I experience a little thrill of anticipation at what’s to come…and therein lies the problem! After such a supreme start the rest of the album can feel anticlimatic. But with familiarity this turns out to be far from the truth – highlights abound throughout the album and the committed listener is rewarded with such a rich and consistently excellent set of songs that it is remarkable to me that Jawbox are not now mentioned in the same breath as Nirvana, Pixies and Fugazi.
Jawbox went on to release one more (eponymous) album and then, evidently, band leader J.Robbins went on to produce…amongst others, The Dismemberment Plan. And having been given the chance to compare them, Sweetheart and Emergency & I couldn’t be much more different – the latter being varied, full of space and much less noisy. It was evident that the US musical hinterland had changed significantly over the intervening five years between the two respective releases, perhaps echoing the use of computer technology in music production as opposed to good ol’ fashioned blood sweat and tears. Jawbox went on to re-release a re-mastered version of Sweetheart a few years ago and it was received to unanimously glowing reviews, usually along the lines of ‘how did we miss this one first time around?’ Like many of my choices for Record Club, the answer to that question eludes me. My suspicion is that Jawbox themselves are just as mystified as the rest of us!
Nick listened: “Did they have any connections with other bands on the DC scene?” asked Tom, pointedly, as I was introducing Dismemberment Plan. “I dunno, I think the producer was in Jawbox” I replied, and he smirked, knowing what he’d brought along. One of those weird coincidences. There were similarities, I guess, but as Tom pointed out, The Plan’s record is much spacier, much poppier, much less gritty and dirty and underground, than this. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t like this, but after the technicolour of Emergency & I this seemed a little monochrome to me.
Rob listened: I guess I have to refer you to my rather tortured response to ‘Emergency & I’ and then observe that the first 30 seconds of the first track of this Jawbox record, as the metallic bass writhes and squirms and the singer grits his teeth and tries to spit out his words, really reminds me of Circus Lupus, who I really, really loved. It was great hearing this and Dismemberment Plan side by side and, despite the pain it caused me to writhe around once more on the sharp edge of my inarticulacy, I enjoyed trying to figure out what this record had that worked for me that the other one did not. My conclusion? It’s an age thing. I don’t know how to explain it, but somehow this record seems the right side of my line, where the other one doesn’t. Will that do? Sorry, it’s all i’ve got.