Thursday, February 25, 2010

February's "Forgotten" Music: Jawbox, Trusty, Smart Went Crazy: bands in DC, late '80s/early '90s

I missed the Heroic Years of punk rock in Washington, DC, or harDCore...I moved to the DC suburbs in 1984, after failing to make ends meet and go to U. Hawaii at the same time. I rejoined my family, who had left Hawaii the year before (though one of the last things I did on Oahu was to help finance Kevin Donegan's Second Pacific Nu Musik Festival (sic) (I think my straightedge cred will be furthered by the probability that my contribution all went to buy the beerkegs) where such folks as the Sharx's Gardner "Fusuhara" and the late Lance Hahn got some early hanging-out in before moving to the continent and forming Cringer). A protopunk fan in the mid-'70s (my first record purchase for myself: a Brownsville Station 45; my second purchase: a Pickwick Beach Boys anthology disc, Surfer Girl; third, an AudioFidelity no-name orchestra recording of the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgski's Pictures at an Exhibition; fourth, the Count Basie Orchestra's Chairman of the Board, my fifth, David Steinberg's Disguised as a Normal Person--and I was off and consuming), I was ready for punk when it arrived, even if I wasn't going to play dress-up. By the time I started befriending people at my Honolulu high school, most of them were at least punk-congnizant, so I got to hear Flipper and the Slits and the Young Marble Giants along with the poppier groups making their way on the charts. A very glum day early in my new Northern Virginia life was brightened by first hearing Husker Du's version of "Eight Miles High."

But by arriving when I did, and not really immersing myself in the burgeoning DC punk scene, I missed the diverse likes of Bad Brains, White Boy, Marginal Man, Psychodrama and Minor Threat...not until I began accompanying my new womanfriend to shows in 1987 did I catch the last appearances of Government Issue and Scream (in their first go-round) and start to pick up on the bands that were continuing and forming in the established and rather adventurous local scene (by the latter '80s, while DC audiences were famously "cool," DC bands were seen as among the most open to experimentation with what "hardcore" punk could mean...Bad Brains, after all, had been credited with inventing the "harder, faster" form, and they were a mutant ex-jazz/rock fusion band (they gave up on Return to Forever-like music because, as Rastafarians, they hoped to reach a wider and younger audience...much as some of the core Return to Forever members had in the early '70s stopped playing free jazz, in bands such as Circle, and moved on to fusion so as to reach larger audiences and perhaps spread a little love for the Church of Scientology).

A lot of the bands were recording on Dischord Records, co-founded by members of Minor Threat, which soon established itself as the most influential, durable and popular punk-oriented label in the area (and one of the most so in the world), though hardly the only one...a lot of bands would self-release their work and use the floating "corporate pseudonym" De Soto Records (now an actual label run by ex-Jawboxers), and such labels as Simple Machines sprung up in Dischord's wake. While Dischord co-owner Ian MacKaye's new band Fugazi was growing enormously popular from jump (I was one of the band's few unenchanted auditors, finding its early investment in songs that built tension to no release counter-productive, if relatively novel; I prefered the songs where they cut loose), there was another local band which first came to my attention due to Maximum RocknRoll's 1989 new-artist compilation They Don't Get Paid, They Don't Get Laid, But Boy Do They Work Hard...Jawbox, with a song named for a John Cheever novel, "Bullet Park."

Smart, allusive lyrics, a propulsive beat; it stood out even in good company. The four-song EP on De Soto/Dischord came soon after, in 1990, and it was brilliant, particularly the final song, "Twister". They weren't holding anything back, and while the lyrics weren't always pellucid, they were always literate and humane...I had a favorite local band, particularly after some transcendent concerts by the trio. The Dischord full-length album Grippe featured the EP and a track, "Footbinder," that had appeared on a compilation album--Jawbox, like many a punk/postpunk band in the early '90s, were on a remarkable number of anthology albums, many of them thematic tributes to other bands, and released any number of split singles with peers such as Jawbreaker. Bassist Kim Coletta can be seen protruding her tongue on this album cover, whose not-quite-title track "Grip" is an example of the slower-tempo songs the first album favored:

...and "Consolation Prize" is an even better example of this more balladic approach. I championed the band in the pages of the free monthly tabloid Whack! (originally Crack DC, which proved too incorrect a title) and they were kind enough to invite Donna and me over to their house to chat...their next Dischord album, Novelty, featured some excellent songs, and debuted the new fourth member, guitarist and vocalist Bill Barbot to augment guitarist/singer J. Robbins, Coletta, and the soon-departing drummer Adam Wade (who found even my praise of the band kind of off-puttingly intellectualized); Zach Barocas replaced him.

In the wake of the grunge/punk explosion, Atlantic began looking hard at punk bands with pop sensibilities, and even though they made west-coasters Sweet Baby Jesus circumsize its name to Sweet Baby, they signed them...and Jawbox, the first Dischord band to move to a major label, to much fuss and hassle back home. For Your Own Special Sweetheart was a brilliant album, featuring a re-energized band now moving into a more "heavy" direction, much as their occasional tourmates Helmet were, as with the J.G. Ballard-inspired "Motorist" or the breathless "Breathe":

But Atlantic didn't really feel like supporting the bands that weren't turning out to be the new Green Day or even Chumbawamba in terms of sales, so their second album with the corporation, Jawbox (1996), was their last, and essentially their last album as well, with finely-crafted songs such as "Iodine" left for diehard fans to discover. The band broke up soon after.

So, this brings us to the album pictured above, My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents, collecting a BBC Radio John Peel Session, a number of anthology and tribute tracks (including the original "Bullet Park," which I prefer to the rerecording for Grippe), and such otherwise unavailable tracks as the slinky, funky "Apollo Amateur". As a survey of their career, I say it's excellent, even if it can't be fully represntative of their work as a whole. (There's a download being offered by someone of a second set of rare tracks, which might well be a bootleg...pity, because a legit release of their original demo, with "Consolation Prize" construed as "Consolation," would be welcome as well.)

Trusty were one of several bands which relocated to DC after establishing themselves elsewhere, in their case, Little Rock, Arkansas; like many of those, they also decided to return home eventually, but not before recording the impressive "Goodbye, Dr. Fate" (1995), a remarkably poppish, lovingly humane album that took off from the band's obsessions with geek culture such as comics and films such as Badlands (this album's "Honey Mustard," describing the color of the van the fleeing young criminals are using, remains the best song about serial killers I'm aware of)...about half the songs are love songs of a curiously domestic sort, some about young lovers coping with tough realities ("Joseph and Jennifer") or simply celebrating the joys of partnership ("A Modest Proposal"; "Wife"); "Kal-El" is a funny and touching lament by a "Clark Kent" who has seen his superpowers fade, while the title track is the most sympathetically chiding corrective to those who think they have complete control over their lives, or anyone else's, this side of Kurt Vonnegut...just as funny, and less bitter. They recorded a second album with Dischord before disbanding; there is no reason either album shouldn't've been all over college radio, at least.

Smart Went Crazy, conversely, were pure spite lyrically, as an album entitled Now We're Even might suggest; in terms of music, they were the closest of any of the Dischord bands to "classical" art-song; I can think of no other postpunk band to utilize cello quite as centrally, though my high-schoolmate Deb Fox's Virgin-Whore Complex and subsequent projects might prove to be comparable (Laurie Anderson is not quite in this race). Particularly witty, if viturperative, are the turns in such songs as "Domestic Tension," "Spy vs. Spy," "Sugar in Your Gas Tank" and "That Which is in the Way"...and set to such lovely, sinuous melodies, some sinister, some deceptively sweet. And about half the pieces are lyric-less, for those who'd just like to take in the beauty without what Avram Davidson called "laughter with a little bubble of blood in it" might be reminded, just a bit, of Kurt Weill...

Three albums that really should be heard. Actually, more than three, but certainly these three at bare minimum.

For more of this month's initial set of "Forgotten" Music, see Scott Parker's blog.


C. Margery Kempe said...

Great piece! You've shared Jawbox before and I admit to complete ignorance -- I'll have to share this with my fave punk rock DJ to see what he knows of these groups (probably far more than me).

Being in mid-Michigan until '83, I saw the punk revolution from afar at first. I distinctly remember seeing the Sex Pistols on the evening news. My parents made the usual murmurs about how disgusting and appalling they were. I was captivated. After the morose stadium rock (interminable solos and screeching singers) and then disco, I was ready for something visceral. But it took a while to get there. I remember the first sort of punk show I went to at what used to be The Bus Stop in East Lansing. There was a girl dressed only in a trash bag. It was cool.

Then I moved to Los Angeles. Longer story.

Ray said...

This was interesting stuff and I enjoyed the music. I have a couple of The Slits tracks on an anthology.

Evan Lewis said...

Crazy stuff, Todd, and mostly new to me. I was still listening to garage music in the 80s and 90s, but had otherwise gravitated to blues and reggae.

Richard Robinson said...

Hooray! Another Forgotten Music post. This is a group that is completely new to me, by this time I'd pretty much tied a string around my rock collection and moved on to jazz and adding classical to my music collection. I read this with interest and listened with mixed reaction, sort of liked some, not other bits. Repeated hearing, and perhaps the right personal culture, would be an aid in appreciating this.

Todd Mason said...

Kate--you'll have to tell more sometime, if you choose. At least the PG-rated parts (I trend that way myself).

Ray--glad you enjoyed the music...the Slits were really great fun. Somehow, the Slits/Spice Girls Reunion Tour seems unlikely, but we can hope. (This would be roughtly comparable to the tour where the Jimi Hendrix Experience opened for the Monkees, only moreso.)

Evan--there certainly was enough new garage coming out in those years, too...Stepehen King's selection of the Lyres' "Help You Ann" (from the ON FYRE album) for one of his ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY columns was a cogent one. I've always liked reggae, but preferred the energy and jazzy feel of ska as soon as I discovered that; my mother had a Joe Turner album and my parents between them a few other bits and pieces, amidst their jazz and other records, that had me listening to blues from an early age, too.

Rick--yes, familiarity can often help with music, or at least with things similar or related...coming into all this stuff cold can be Interesting.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Amazed as ever.

Scott D. Parker said...

Loved this history lesson quite a bit. Ironically, as I've grown older, my interest and appreciate for punk music has grown as well. This post hits me exactly where I'm at. Thanks.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks to you both, and you're welcome, Scott. Trying to figure what to leave out (how much better such bands as Autoclave and particularly Fidelity Jones were in concert than on record were; the bands who recorded on other local labels for various reasons (such as the Suspects on Torque) and the local bands which were not quite trying to reach the same audiences, such as the Hare Krishnan punk band Shelter). Or how a lot of the music online sites have some amusing choices in how they label bands, such as Jawbox as "hardcore; emo" when those are pretty much still opposites within the punk-rock spectrum.