Friday, December 04, 2009

Jawbox: For Your Own Special Sweetheart (reissue) is a great website. go there. tell your friends. tell your enemies.

Such was the fury and self-righteous outrage when Jawbox left fabled indie label Dischord Records and signed with Atlantic, that some fans - exhibiting the type of reactionary lunacy that still surfaces every time an indie darling makes the major label jump - boycotted the group's albums and dismissed the band as corporate sell-outs. Probably most of those principled punks and humorless DC-scene elitists have come around by now; the band's Atlantic debut, 1994's For Your Own Special Sweetheart, remains both Jawbox's finest hour and one of the decade's defining releases. How in the hell this album went out of print is unexplainable, and it's both ironic and fitting that Sweetheart has finally been reissued by the label that lost the band to the majors in the first place.

Though Jawbox's major label output was minimal - the band managed just two albums before Atlantic dropped them - Sweetheart still demonstrates that a band can indeed do its best work under the auspices, watchful eyes and stuffed wallets of a major label without having to sanitize and neuter its sound. While the mid-1990s had its share of indie bands whose edges were softened and polished before the ink on that major label contract could even dry, Jawbox isn't one of them. True, Sweetheart is far more accessible and polished than the Dischord-issued punk blasts Grippe and Novelty, but in this case the sheen applied throughout still works: the songs' lyricism, vocal quirks and precise arrangements easily offset any alleged commercial concessions. J. Robbins' singing alternates between the menacing snarls of "FF=66," "Cruel Swing" and "Cooling Card" and the mostly straightforward alt-rock vocals of "Savory," "Breathe" and "LS/MFT," while Robbins' and Bill Barbot's guitars and Zach Barocas' drums each form essential pieces of the songs' composition. Such arrangements can sometimes sound overly studied and rehearsed - and without question Sweetheart is the band's most meticulously produced record - but the band retains enough of its abrasiveness and tension to render such potential pitfalls non-existent. This tension likewise extends to the songs' content; though the album's lyrics have routinely been overlooked in favor of their structures, the lyrics are as integral as any of the album's guitar bursts or pounded drums. "Motorist," for example, takes the familiar rock motif of a car crash and manages to capture its impact in only a few simple lines: "When you examined the wreck what did you see/ Glass everywhere and wheels still spinning free."

Unlike many such reissues, this version is worth a purchase for both fans that have the original album as well as those who have yet to hear Sweetheart. Purists might object to the album being tinkered with at all, but Bob Weston's remastering job is mostly welcome. Barocas' drums in particular are more pronounced in the mix, giving the songs more muscle without entirely altering their overall makeup. The volume is also a bit punchier and louder than the original release, which is good news for an iPod generation that will likely be deaf by the age of 40 anyway. The Savory EP is tacked on after "Whitney Walks," and though none of its songs surpass anything from the album proper, it's nice to have a more complete picture of the band at its best. The only misstep - a minor one, to be sure - is that the cover art was bafflingly changed from the album's original image of a blow-up doll to that of a marble sculpture. Some things are better just left alone.

The majors may have devoured plenty of bands throughout the 1990s, but Jawbox won't ever be counted among them. However briefly, the group managed to refine their sound and still retain the characteristics that originally endeared them to the DC music scene. If it came at the price of alienating some indie fans who would by default piss on anything even remotely mainstream, so be it. Some people can't be told, but for the rest of us, this reissue of a true landmark 1990s album solidifies Jawbox's place as one of that decade's most inventive and singularly focused groups.

1 comment:

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