Sunday, June 15, 2014

Jawbreaker ‎– Bivouac (1992)

As the principal wordsmith for Jawbreaker, Blake Schwarzenbach was one of the first songwriters in the punk scene to embrace literary lyrics more personal and challenging than the often vague or pseudo-political proclamations of the early emo scene and far more intricate than almost all of the band's West Coast pop-punk contemporaries. In their short lifespan, Jawbreaker would arc from their scrappy melodic punk beginnings (Unfun, 1990) to a polarizing major-label swan song (Dear You, 1995) with everything in between, from high-tension band breakups to extended hospital stays, vicious criticism from former allies in the punk scene, and the creation of a subtle masterpiece in 1994's Steve Albini-recorded 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. Somewhere in the center lies Bivouac, Jawbreaker's second album and easily their stormiest, gruffest material. The album came after a brief breakup brought on by a devastatingly rocky summer tour, expressed to the hilt in the horrifying lyrics of "Tour Song," with its coda of "Every little thing must go wrong." With a little time, they reunited and relocated from New York to the Bay Area, taking a good amount of city grit with them and applying it to a foundation of sophisticated guitar-based pop songs. While Jawbreaker's heart was composed of Schwarzenbach's poetic storytelling and a sense of romance so immediate it touched the music as much as the lyrics, Bivouac is more marked with musical struggle than any other of the band's albums. Aggressive songs like "Face Down" and "Like a Secret" lean more on dissonance and buried vocals than the group's usual melodicism. Bearing in mind that the landscape of independent punk in 1992 was overshadowed by a booming grunge scene, it makes sense that Jawbreaker's toughest songs on Bivouac have hints of Helmet, Gish-era Smashing Pumpkins, and other acts of the day that were in the process of blowing up. Interspersing classic young-love pop songs like the timelessly sweet "Chesterfield King" and the optimistic "Shield Your Eyes" with more angsty material gives Bivouac a searching quality, clearly made by artists grasping for identity or clarity in changing times. The ten-minute title track finds the coagulation of all the shifting elements of the album, dialing in the swirling basslines and big grunge choruses with beat poet-inspired lyrics aiming to reconcile Holden Caulfield-esque displacement and alienation from immediate family. As the song churns on it sets the scene for what would come next in the band's discography, a more digestible and confident progression in lyrical and musical development. However, the journey to that development is a rocky one, and the unhinged urgency of Bivouac is an enormous moment, and one necessary to go through in order to take Jawbreaker from their naive punk beginnings to the one-of-a-kind band they grew to be before their star burned out abruptly.
Fred Thomas

Exactly how I felt, Blake. There was once promise in music, our society, and humanity in general. But all that hope is fading fast. I've seen bands use what was once the most offensive type of music and exploit it into a money making, trend setting industry.

I have seen violence and hatred plauge our planet, our country, and yes, our neighbors. Everyone knows about the 'terrorist attacks' in New York, but few know about the Siek individual(which is a completely different religion than the Muslim faith) in Phoenix Arizona U.S.A., who was murdered simply because he resembled the attackers. It is this type of blind, ignorant violence that will eventually be the untimely end of humanity.

The intesity of this Jawbreaker album can only be paralleled by Earth itself. Aggressive and up-front often, but underlying and soft at times as well. Songs like 'Chesterfield King' will go down as one of the greatest love-songs off all time(in my book anyway), while others such as 'Donatello' reach deep into the realms of saddness. 'p.s.New York is burning' is disturbingly accurate, almost a decade in advace. It is a complete rollercoaster of human emotion, from depression to rock-stardom. In high school, I was sure I would be the one to write beautifully ugly songs, intensively disgusting and yet softly ellegant at the same time. To my disgression, it had already been done.

Little did Jawbreaker know that the sloppy, ear-aching sound they were playing would eventually be over-produced, capitolized, and distributed to the masses as 'emo'. However, they took the often stagnite punk rock sound to a whole new level of experimation, intesity, and emotion, while remaining raw and unscathed.

'Bivouac', what appears to be your average, run-of-the-mill punk record, is everything but that. An unpredictable, inventive, lyrically-genius album ahead of its time.

In a day where one sees eveything he wishes he didn't see, there is an answer... 

With Jawbreaker's first album, Unfun, they proved themselves to be more than just a Punk band. They were energetic, dark, and with poetic lyrics that resemble the arty beat poetry of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Chuck Bukowski, but with a twist that was, and is, described as emo. But on Bivouac, Jawbreaker mastered that.

Slower than Unfun, Bivouac is a look at the world from the inside out. The songs are slow shades of poetic alienation that goes a few steps above teenage poetry (a lot of steps) and perfectly take stabs at the world. "Shield Your Eyes" opens the album perfectly. It starts off with a small line of feedback, and a quick drum roll before going into the song with a great melody covered by a wall of distortion. The bass line is bouncy and the drums are perfect, but it's the lyrics that are the true catch. It tells the story of a man who looks straight into the sun, which "Lights the whole damn sky", and is blinded. "He can't do anything, Everything is a lie." That single line sums up the whole record. Unlike most bands, Jawbreaker takes an equal amount of storytelling, preaching, and self deprecating into one mix; most bands take one of those elements and just stretch it until it pops.

As always, the rhythm section of Chris Bauermeister and Adam Pfahler is top notch. They prove to be very versatile tempo-wise, and always keep up with the wall of distortion that Blake cemented into the band's sound. One of the best examples is "Face Down". The song's bass line is great; simple, yet extremely effective. The drums show an equal amount of fluency, as they aren't too fast nor too slow.

Donatello is another example of how, lyrically, Jawbreaker was the best. There's poetry, "I'm gonna cut my strings and kill the puppeteer. Then I'll walk on out of here", and in your face, to the point, one liners, "Sure you made an impression. Depression". It also features some of Blake's most passionate singing. He switches from almost whispering slurs into passionate yelps at the world. There's a short recorded spoken word interlogue as well. "When it all comes down, I can show you something you will not believe. When it all comes down, we're gonna see a real masterpiece. With an artist's eye and a killer's touch. Takes a life to make one."

So, in case you haven't noticed, I think Blake is a lyrical genius. Most punk lyricists just stood to the loud and fast rules back in those days. But Blake presented something much different, something that appealed to a whole new group of kids, waiting for the next Rites of Spring, the next wave of emo. Over the years, however, he has been mimicked by little wannabe pop-punk bands that stole the originality of it and made it, unfortunately, a bad take on teenage poetry.

One of the best songs on the album is the self explanatory, Tour Song. Despite the differing subject matter, Tour Song has the same approach as the previous songs. It shows that touring's main catch is playing, and even that is hard to get through. "Chesterfield King" is one of the lighter tunes on the album, describing an affair, but with a beat twist. "She asked me if I had a name. I told her I was glued up on some chick. We sat and smoked against the wall. Drank a beer, felt the chill of fall."

This incredible record ends with the epic, ten minute and six second, "Bivouac". Out of all the sad songs on this record, the saddest has got to be this one. Similar to The Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray", Bivouac is loose and jammy, but still with a sense of direction. The lyrics are also poetic and arty, something that could describe this record perfectly.

Most people call 24 Hour Revenge Therapy the band's best album. Which makes sense; it's the band's most accessible record before signing to a major label. So all the so called "real fans" that "stick it to the man" by not listening to Dear You, go for Revenge Therapy, the same reason all the "hardcore Green Day fans", go for Kerplunk, instead of Dookie. But I'm not going to waste my time. In my opinion, Bivouac is the band's Classic. It's dark, emotional, witty, and arty, but still with the flare of Punk rock.

They never became a household name and people still think Face to Face or some shitty "pop punk" band wrote "Chesterfield King", but Jawbreaker were a huge deal for a lot of people. I remember driving from New Brunswick, N.J., to Philadelphia to bring my girlfriend a promo cassette copy of Dear You, the group's 1995 post-Green Day major label debut. It had arrived a day earlier at the record store where I worked, and I thought she'd want to hear it. I got out of the van, showed it to her; she tossed it on the ground, smashed it under her foot. Around that same time, a guy I knew from local basement shows, came into the record store, pointed to the tattoo of the Jawbreaker logo on his arm, and shook his head. He had tears in his eyes.

This was a band the underground didn't want to lose, at a time when commerce wasn't so closely intertwined with everyday listening experiences. Formed while they were students at NYU, the trio of vocalist/guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach, bassist Chris Bauermeister, and drummer Adam Pfahler relocated to Los Angeles and released their debut, Unfun, in 1990 (it was reissued by Blackball in 2010). Unfun was a good (very fun) record, a solid dose of early 90s emotional, literate punk that established the raw-voiced Schwarzenbach as an underground hero. The band went on the so-called "Fuck 90" tour with Econochrist that summer and broke up, but managed to get back together, relocate to San Francisco, and record 1992's Bivouac.

The record found them experimenting, and pushing into deeper, angrier, heavier (and headier) waters. People cite 1994's Steve Albini-helmed 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, which showed up after they played some shows in 1993 with Nirvana, as the group's pre-major label masterpiece. But Bivouac has always held a special place for me. It's their darkest collection, a sprawling, shaggy-dog set that found them transitioning from the cleaner, calmer Unfun to something grittier, wilder, and smarter. Bivouac was a ragged call to arms, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy an ambitious offering within that newer space they'd created.

Bivouac also includes one of their most beloved songs, "Chesterfield King", a poppy anthem a lot of people saw themselves in. It was a perfect punk vignette. In just about four minutes Schwarzenbach sets a scene ("We stood in your room and laughed out loud/ Suddenly the laughter died and we were caught in an eye to eye/ We sat on the floor and did we sit close") as vivid as good fiction. One of his gifts was finding a way to present specific, personal details ("Held your hand and watched TV and traced the little lines along your palms") and make them feel universal. So, here, when the protagonist cuts out to catch his breath and ends up sharing smokes and thoughts with a toothless woman in a 7-11 parking lot, you sort of remember this happening to you, too.

But it's not all love and lovesickness. From opener "Shield Your Eyes" ("There was a sun once/ It lit the whole damn sky/ It kept everything alive") onward this is an apocalyptic record filled with bigger kinds of searches, depression, and dirt. You get that soul sickness in "P.S. New York Is Burning", "Parabola"'s "I saw myself in someone else and hated them," and "Like a Secret"'s request: "Don't talk me down from here/ Let me fly this kite without a string." It shows up clearest, and more impressively, in the 10-minute closing title track's search for meaning: "I'm lonely/ I'm an only/ I learned to put on airs/ I needed them to breathe/ Today I wake up." Here, Schwarzenbach sets an earth clawing scene ("I dug my fingers in the earth/ I drew picture of my pain/ They were so pretty") punctuated by feedback, noise, and the singer's howling of the album title, a shout that hurts and brings down the shelter he's place around himself. It's a call for help, though one that doesn't need to be answered. You get the sense that it's the act itself that mattered most.

Biouvac's 20th Anniversary CD reissue, remastered by John Golden from the original tapes, includes songs from the original studio sessions: "Ache", which showd up on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, and "Peel It the Fuck Down", which appeared on the 2002 compilation Etc. Like the original 1992 CD, this version includes the four-songs that appeared on the 1992 Chesterfield King 12": "Tour Song", "Face Down", "You Don't Know", and "Pack It Up". For those who followed the band at the time, those tracks have always felt as much a part of the tracklisting as the 9-song vinyl version. (Fittingly, Blackball has also reissued the 9-song Bivouac and Chesterfield King 12" on vinyl for the first time in years.)

One of those Chesterfield King tracks, "Tour Song", ends with the line: "Every little thing must go wrong." But, the truth is, despite things not working out exactly as planned, everything did not go wrong. People were angry when Schwarzenbach had painful polyps removed from his vocal chords and were ready to riot when, later, he cleaned up his vocal sound for Dear You. That record didn't sell well enough according to DGC standards, Jawbreaker never became the next Nirvana or Green Day, and in 1996 the group called it quits. But, in retrospect, Dear You was the right record for the band to make. (It's a great album, just not the one you wanted to hear when you were 21 and navigating a close-knit underground that hadn't dealt with this sort of thing firsthand.) So, yeah, Jawbreaker may have grown up before we were ready for them to grow up, but their music has managed to age especially well. It feels as vital now as it did two decades ago.  
Brandon Stosuy 


  1. Thank you for taking the time. <3

  2. Could you upload 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, Dear You and the EPs again??? the links are down! great blog mate!!!

  3. Please reuploded Dear You, the link is down!