Nobody can write or play a song quite like J. Robbins can. You might feel compelled to say Fugazi’s Ian McKaye or Quicksand’s Walter Schreifels, as they both have backgrounds similar to Robbins’, but where Fugazi and Quicksand married hardcore and pop songwriting, Jawbox took it a step further, retaining a hard edge, whilst challenging listeners with a more mathematically complex and dissonant, yet somehow accessible and transcendent sound. You could also be sly and say that any of Jawbox’s followers write songs like J. Robbins does. You’d be right, in that they’d be similar, but they wouldn’t be nearly as good. If you were really smart you might say that someone like Failure’s Ken Andrews writes songs like J. Robbins. And to some extent, that would be true, but Andrews always veered closer to the mainstream than Robbins did, despite the D.C. songwriter/producer’s knack for turning difficult elements into instantly catchy hits.
Yet, none of J. Robbins’ compositions became hits, unfortunately, as many of them were under publicized by Atlantic Records or released on under-the-radar DIY label deSoto. Yet, Jawbox and Burning Airlines always had a loyal cult following that yearned to rock. And they could only rock in an intelligent, highbrow manner, the likes of which could only be provided by the angular guitar work and dense lyricism of J. Robbins.
Robbins got his start in hardcore in the 1980s, playing guitar for D.C. punk band Government Issue. Though hardcore purists count Government Issue among the forefathers of the genre along with Gorilla Biscuits, Youth of Today, Murphy’s Law and The Cro-Mags, it was only the beginning for Robbins. He then started Jawbox with Bill Barbot, bassist Kim Coletta and drummer Adam Wade. Wade left the band in 1993, only to be replaced by Zachary Barochas for Jawbox’s two major label (and best) releases. In 1997, Jawbox called it a day and Robbins and Barbot kept playing together as Burning Airlines. After two albums, Burning Airlines folded as well, leaving Robbins to seek a new outlet for his songwriting. As of now, Robbins fronts Channels, a new power trio with as much dissonance and spunk as Robbins’ former bands, but a newfound sophistication and subtlety.
Robbins has also lent his talents to other bands, working behind the boards. He’s engineered and produced albums by Jets to Brazil, Maritime, The Dismemberment Plan, Melee, The Promise Ring and Bluetip, among countless others. But his most current project, Channels, boasts a return to the catchy, yet dissonant, rock that earned Robbins his reputation as respected musician and songwriter.
Here is a selected discography of Robbins-related albums that no record collection should be without:
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.