Listen up! I’m starting a regular series about bands I love that, for one reason or another, never gained a mainstream presence, but deserved to. I’m kicking off the inaugural entry with one of my favorite punk bands of all time:
# 1. Jawbreaker
This band is very close to me. I’ve been listening to them for over a decade, so this entry will probably be longer than those that follow. But I’ll try to keep it short.
Jawbreaker formed when high school friends Blake Schwarzenbach (vocals, guitar) and Adam Pfahler (drums) met Chris Bauermeister (bass) at NYU in the mid 80s. After writing material and playing on both coasts, they released the dark, yet simultaneously melodic, Unfun in 1989. A national tour to support Unfun followed. The band took a brief hiatus to finish college. After the hiatus, they relocated to San Francisco and released three more studio albums (Bivouac, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and Dear You). They also released numerous EPs, 7 inches and splits.
Unfun and Bivouac are similarly fast and heavy, while 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and Dear You are more in the vein of pop-punk. Dear You is noticeably more polished than their first three albums. This is due to Jawbreaker moving from an independent record label to Geffen, a major label. The album was a critical success, but they were accused of “selling out.” The criticism, albeit unwarranted, and the grind of touring and recording took its toll. After the release of Dear You, the band broke up. However, a live album, Live 4/30/96, and a collection of b-sides and rarities, Etc., were released after the breakup.
The most noticeable thing about Jawbreaker’s sound is Schwarzenbach’s raw, gravel-throat vocals. While some might see his singing as unpolished, that’s the way it’s meant to be. There’s no Auto-Tune or other studio tricks, just earnest emotion. Raspy voiced vocalists aren’t uncommon, but it’s Jawbreaker’s lyrics and musicianship that set them apart.
Jawbreaker’s musical style is rooted in hardcore-punk, owing much to The Descendents, Husker Du and Black Flag, but it also has elements of post-punk bands such as Big Black and The Psychedelic Furs. However, unlike many punk bands, Jawbreaker uses complex arrangements, unusual time signatures, audio samples and interludes in their songs. Add a relentless guitar and a driving rhythm section, and you’ve got a one-of-a-kind listening experience.
Schwarzenbach’s lyrics are the piece de resistance. He might be one of the best lyricists of the past 20 years. That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. Thanks to bands such as Green Day and blink-182, some people see punk bands as nothing more than man-children with low-brow sensibilities. That’s hardly the case with Jawbreaker. Schwarzenbach’s lyrics are almost poetic. They have a literary flow that you would expect from an admirer of Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski. They often deal with rejection, self-loathing, longing and fear. His verses take you directly to the loneliest of places. Here’s an excerpt from “Ache” off of 24 Hour Revenge Therapy:
It’s never going to be like it could have been.
Now it’s just this room.
(Window looks back)
You’re a big part of it.
But I don’t care.
(You take the lead)
And can you really see me now
Like I made me?
(Made me anew)
Just like anyone at all.
Jawbreaker’s influence is seen in bands such as Jimmy Eat World, Alkaline Trio and Say Anything. Many more cover their songs (The Ataris’ “Boxcar” or Lucero’s “Kiss The Bottle” anyone?) and list them as an influence (Face To Face, Saves The Day and Fallout Boy, to name a few). They’ve even been the subject of two tribute albums. For a low-profile, cult band, Jawbreaker’s impact has been immense. It’s my hope that they will continue to live on through other bands and older brothers’, maybe even fathers’, music collections.