December 11th, 2009

louder than love


Back in 1994, in Nirvana's aftermath, major record labels signed every independent, post-punk, or grunge-ish band they could find. For a brief window of time, several truly groundbreaking bands were thrust into prominence. Most fizzled quickly - some became watered-down due to major-label pressures, but DC's Jawbox seized the opportunity. Armed with a bigger budget from Atlantic Records, they proceeded to make their third album and masterpiece, For Your Own Special Sweetheart. The result was a fierce, uncompromising work whose influence has spread far and runs deep. Pitchfork just reviewed the remaster, giving it a 9.3 and "Best New Reissue" (they got this one right!).

Hearing this album in 1994 was an absolute revelation. Entire bands were started based on single riffs from certain songs. I recall excitedly analyzing with friends exactly what made the syncopation of "Cut Off" so brilliant, and the thrill of figuring out the chords to "Savory" for the first time.

But perhaps even more influential than the music was the energy Jawbox brought to its live shows. Fans still remember this clearly, and few other bands have been able to replicate their power and ferocity. So naturally, people have gone absolutely nuts over the strange mini-reunion this past Tuesday - in order to help promote the reissue of FYOSS, Jawbox reformed to play three songs on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. "Savory" was broadcast on the show:

But they also recorded two other songs during the soundcheck. Here is their B-side "68", included on the reissue:

Seeing Jawbox perform again, I felt as if a direct window to 1994 had suddenly opened, if ever-so-briefly. I had forgotten how subversive this kind of music was back then - before everyone could home-record, before the Internet made distribution and discovery basically instantaneous. It took fucking balls to make this kind of music at that time, and a certain amount of determination and perseverance on the part of fans to seek it out (I basically lived for the weekly broadcast of 120 Minutes for several years).

Here's "FF=66". Imagine this as the opening track of an album in 1994 - a combination of intellectualism (That's a reading from William Carlos Williams that starts it off!), brilliant lyrics, perhaps the most fiercely dissonant guitar parts ever conceived, and a chorus that jarringly juxtaposes a catchy, harmonized melody over the top of it all:

Nowadays, it is nearly impossible to shock anyone with music - indie rock has become mainstream, and there are so many niches and fringes that experimentalism almost seems passe. There's plenty of good music being made right now, but it's not really in spite of other forces, the way it was back then. In the early '90s, against all odds and between the twin evil spectres of Milli Vanilli and The Spice Girls, good music inexplicably found an outlet. To me, Jawbox - and specifically FYOSS - marked the pinnacle of this moment.