A simple definition of chaos theory is that after enough time and distance, patterns can be found in chaos, making order and even sometimes beauty. My life was in a state of chaos to be sure. I was hurt, angry, and confused over a girl. The store I was working in, the one for which I had moved across the country, was going out of business. And to top it off, the bar I was in with my friend did not have any ginger ale, nor did they have any Crown Royal, the purple felt bagged source of happiness. “Just say the two magic words,” my friend said. I had no idea what he was talking about, especially after having imbibed numerous 7 & 7’s. “Road Trip,” he elucidated. So, after giving himself of test of playing “Crazy” on his baby blue Jazzmaster without messing up, we hopped in the Mighty Plymouth K and headed toward Atlantic City.
After a few urban legends about the Jersey Devil, which, even after a lot of alcohol in the wee small hours, wasn’t scary in the slightest, he put on some music. What he put on was something that spoke volumes to me in my time of need. I’m not talking about lives being saved by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush and their duet “Don’t Give Up.” No, I’m talking about realizing that anger and frustration are okay, that music can be both unforgiving and elating at the same time, that hard guitars and voices could somehow ease my pain. He put on Jawbox’s last studio album, Jawbox. How I had missed their first three albums I’ll never know. All I can say is that I chalk it up to not being a huge Minor Threat fan.
As my friend and I drove through the suburbs of New Jersey, beginning with “Mirrorful” and going all the way through to the hidden track of “Cornflake Girl,” I went through a healing process. I will always remember the first lyrics, even though I might never understand them. “Blue-eyed bloody lullaby, less a lesson than an alibi.” Reading the entire host of lyrics it’s an indictment on our government’s propaganda. And at about 2:37 into the song, with the overlapping vocals of “I don’t believe” and thundering drums, I started to smile. The tight yet heated guitars of J. Robbins and W.C. Barbot, combined with the steady bass of Kim Coletta, and the forceful and manic drums of Zachary Barocas all drilled holes into my seething brain, allowing my hurt to be vented and channeled into music. In fact, the album’s wraparound cover was a picture-perfect illustration of how Jawbox affected me, featuring a bald man (I assume, Robbins) putting two fingers to his head in a mock-gun fashion, with flowers shooting out the other side.
“Iodine” was the first song on the album that led me to believe that Jawbox should by all rights have been huge. Its slow first stanzas leading into frontman J. Robbins’ confident and clear chorus are a sign of a great songwriting band. “Say it like you mean it boy / Shut your mouth until you can / Ten times, ten times fast.” “His Only Trade” features Robbins and guitarist W.C. Barbot trading overlapping vocals screamed to perfection. Just listen to the scream 1:05 into the song before the shouts of `sixes’ and `sevens.’ My favorite guitar moments are featured in the song “Chinese Fork Tie” as they keen and bend over the lyrics “hey, take the big man down.”
Die-hard fans of the band have been known to dismiss this album as a sell-out, a glossy big label production, while time has forgiven their major label debut, For Your Own Special Sweetheart. Jawbox is definitely well produced and features less of the indie / gritty feel of their earlier releases on DeSoto and Dischord. This, I contend, is the hallmark of a band progressing and striving to make themselves better as opposed to merely phoning it in to a slick producer. Lest we forget, Nirvana, Helmet, and Shudder to Think all went to majors and made some great music. (Let’s just forget about the last STT album though, shall we?).
“Excandescent” is another track, like “Iodine” before it, that could have easily seen radio or video play. “Desert Sea” far surpasses even those in that area. Starting out slow and methodical as “Iodine”, it again kicks into a shouting chorus of “Now dive, sun-blind, to the new starting line.” “Empire of One” is another overlapping vocal number, something that became somewhat a signature of the band. Some of my favorite lyrics are included here such as:
“Mouth like a Senator / Hung like a cheap suit
Sings like a salesman / Drunk on the audience”
“Nickel Nickel Millionaire” really affected me. The bile-filled words touched the anger and frustration within me, allowing me to connect with something other than the insular world I was wallowing in.
Promise wine from brackish water;
Hell of a pitch, wonder if it’s really understood.
Feed me enough poison, I’ll learn to enjoy it.
What’s the new diversion; sweetening the poison
After a few seconds of silence following the great closer “Absenter,” I motioned to eject the tape, or at least rewind it so I could listen to it again. My friend swatted my hand away and told me to simply wait. After a few more minutes of silence, the feedback and distortion that kicks off their exquisite cover of “Cornflake Girl” began to filter through the speakers. Robbins’ delivery and Coletta’s actual Tori Amos-like backup blew me away. I was sold. And after a night of debauchery, almost getting kicked out of a Trump casino, and then a full eight hours of work, I bought the CD for myself.