The question that must have plagued many a Jawbox or Burning Airlines fan is `why did these bands never become huge?’ At the very least it’s a question that’s been plaguing me. It’s a reasonable question to ask, given the infectiousness of many of each band’s songs and the crisp production that came with them. But J. Robbins was always a little too complicated for a mainstream audience. His melodies rarely involved power chords or obvious hooks. His lyrics were frequently dark, sometimes cynical and often indecipherable on the first few run-throughs. And to top it all off, having albums released on deSoto Records, the label run by one-time bandmates Bill Barbot and Kim Coletta, made it hard to track some of Burning Airlines’ releases down. I, myself, had to make trips to Lou’s Records in Encinitas (about a half-hour north of San Diego State University) during my first year of college, just to find albums by BA, Juno and The Dismemberment Plan.
Despite Burning Airlines’ highbrow tendencies, however, they rocked like motherfuckers. And that single reason alone is enough to convert the uninitiated. I’ve turned many a friend onto Identikit, the band’s second and last release, based on its sheer willingness to kick your ass. And three years later, the impact is still felt.
The combination of well-written songs, unlikely hooks, raw riffage and a defiance of all things trite made Identikit one of the best releases in a year dominated by nü-metal. Opening song “Outside the Aviary” packed as much excitement as possible into a one-minute-and-fifty-one-second package. In an unusual move, J. Robbins, Mike Harbin and Pete Moffett played it straight, or as straight as possible for three technically proficient, brilliant songwriters. “Aviary” sounds like the Buzzcocks on steroids, marrying catchy punk hooks with beefed-up bass and Moffett’s double-bass drum attack. Had deSoto Records the marketing budget of Virgin Records, it would have been neck-in-neck with Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood” for single of the year. Instead, it became a live favorite and a mix tape staple, the second best thing to a mainstream breakthrough for an indie rock band.
“Aviary” was only the beginning, however, as Identikit had fourteen other moments of greatness that followed. “A Lexicon” was equally catchy, though not nearly as fast or brief. “The Surgeon’s House” brought some jazzy textures to the band’s otherwise jagged punk rock sound. “The Deluxe War Baby” shuffled along like Queens of the Stone Age jamming with Shellac. And “Paper Crowns” was a close second in the hook department, bearing a strong resemblance to early XTC in all its disjointed bounciness.
The title track served as the album’s centerpiece, an intense rush of effects-laden riffs, merciless vocal seething and head-bobbing rock ‘n’ roll fun. Along with “Outside the Aviary,” it was a true standout, and also served as the song that kicked off Burning Airlines’ intense live sets. Only four months after its release, however, the song began to present itself in a new light, as the lyrics eerily mirrored the events on September 11th.
“Century opens and we’re breaking yellow tape at the scene/
Something criminal beyond obscene/
Caught a glimpse, all rubberneckers roceketing past/
All perpetrators, or refugees?”
Along with lyrical coincidences came the concern that, perhaps, a fragile public would express disgust with the band’s name. Seeing the phrase ‘Burning Airlines’ on club marquees certainly had the potential for horrorified, knee-jerk reactions, as nobody had quite recovered yet. The band, having only the best intentions, decided that continuing to tour would be the best thing, as music made people feel good and kept everyone’s mind off of what happened. Robbins, Harbin and Moffett chose to continue with their current name, justifying that they’ve always had a gallows humor about them and that in context, it comes from a Brian Eno song, not factual events. And judging by Robbins’ frequently left-leaning lyrics, it was a way of the band standing their ground for freedom of speech. Unfortunately, the band broke up not long thereafter, for reasons other than politics.
Burning Airlines’ career was brief — a little too brief — though the two albums they released in that three-year span were powerful enough to rival other bands’ twenty year careers. Some say it’s better to burn out than fade away, but Burning Airlines did neither. They just called it a day and simply let things come to a civil end, without any embarrassing after effects. Grossly underrated and criminally ignored, Identikit was the best album of 2001 that hardly anyone heard. Luckily it’s still in print, so anyone convinced by this review can go and seek it out at his/her local independent record store. You can thank me later.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.