Sunday, June 15, 2014

Jawbreaker ‎– Unfun (1990)

   Jawbreaker could be easily described as a pop-punk band with more of a dark side. Not that this isn't true, but it just wouldn't do this trio any justice to their poetic lyrics and complex song structures. With Unfun, a very influential record way ahead of its time, they make a name for themselves -- not as your run-of-the-mill punk band with a verse-chorus-verse style, but rather as a band that provides fitting background to the personal side that they're not afraid to show. For example, take one of the more energetic songs on the album, "Busy," in which the person offers a helping hand to a friend on the verge of mental collapse ("When nothing seems to be quite worth it and sleep becomes the only sure thing/I'm here to help you out of it/Come and see me for a lift"). But two tracks later, self-doubt and guilt are present in "Wound": "Feel my burning rash/Old scabs on my back/Deep red welts from hating myself/I was once, once so strong." Quite an emotional roller coaster, but at the same time it gives Unfun its edge and originality.
Mike DaRonco

I feel like I'm betraying an old friend by writing this review. Before he condemns me for my transgression, however, let me begin to defend myself by saying that we really haven't been in touch recently. He's been hanging around with his brothers on my shelf and I've been hanging around with newer bands, people I now find infinitely more interesting than him.

Although, having just admitted that, I realize that this review might end up seeming like I'm betraying him twice over. Not only am I unearthing our long-ago, once-vital friendship for the lone purpose of writing about him, but I'm also baldly admitting that he's become less of a friend to me. Sure, I still pull him out for a spin now and again, usually when I'm feeling like I haven't heard from him in eons, and we always have a blast. But mostly, I seem to forget about him. (If you must know, his spine is fading a bit from over ten years sitting in the sun in whatever apartment in which I happened to be living. And it's getting damn hard to read his name anymore. So perhaps it's no wonder I don't look him up more; he's literally become invisible.)

But there's also a third betrayal I'm making by committing these words to paper. I'm not going to be talking so much about my old friend's musical qualities that once brought and still bring me so much happiness for this tribute to him. True, there are tons of these qualities, probably more than will fill this paragraph—the galloping percussive bass and sustained guitar chords that open "Want", the first song on the record, the clever use of sampled dialogue in "Incomplete" and "Eye-5", the impossibly-fast drums and breathless lyrics of "Gutless"—but, uncovering him once again for the purpose of writing about him, I'm more struck by how this record has become symbolic of two things for me, one of which is easy to discuss, the other being more elusive.

I want first of all to explain how this record hit me when I first heard it, shortly after it was released on CD in 1992. It sounded like a perfect sonic brew of the genres I obsessed over in high school—heavy metal and college rock when "college rock" meant what the radio station outcasts (not the fraternities) were listening to—and combined the driving musical aggression of the former with the melodic sensitivity of the latter. Like the rap music I was also listening to at the time, its lyrics were personal and intelligent. (For evidence of this, listen to "Busy". Its eager awkwardness comes across as strangely coherent; it's like having a wee-hours drunken conversation about the profundities of the world that lasts well into the rest of your life.)

That paragraph, though, is all musical evaluation; it would do well to be summarized in the following statement: Unfun sounds pretty much the same right now as it did then.

So why am I wasting finger movements and stomach acid trying to write about this record? Well, this is where the elusiveness begins: it was my introduction to the punk rock/d.i.y. music community. This community was one of which I was utterly ignorant; only later, when I became submerged in it, did I realize that it existed outside of the confines of the mainstream that I did know. A friend in college (a real flesh-and-blood friend, not an aluminum disc friend) who was in a punk band introduced me to the record, telling me it was one of his favorites. In order to find a CD copy for myself, since I wore out the cassette copy I made of his, I scoured the copies of Maximum Rock N Roll that he loaned me and went with him when he went to independent record stores and punk rock shows. After I found the record, things just seemed to blossom.

Now, I could go on and on about the bands I started listening to, the shows I started seeing, the people I started meeting, the friends I started making. This would clearly demonstrate my total Jawbreaker-sparked engulfment by this outsider community (and thus make for good writing). But the point I want to make is one that's more difficult to argue (and thus make for not-so-good writing): this record is doubly symbolic for me. It's representative both of my gateway into the musical community of punk rock/d.i.y. and into the ideological community of punk rock/d.i.y. culture.

So at what point did listening to punk rock music lead to a change in my cultural world-view or ideology? How does consuming a product of a certain public culture lead to a personal ideological change? What were the specific steps by which this happened to me? I know that it wasn't Jawbreaker's music or lyrics alone on the record that did it. Nor was it the hundred or so bands that I discovered as a result of the record. Nor was it any one of the friends I made, the books I read, the movies I saw, the papers I wrote, the thoughts I thought, or the things I said since those months in 1992 when my mind and world opened up for the better.

As close to an epiphanic moment in this tribute as I'm going to reach, those last few sentences are pretty cringe-worthy. But writing about Unfun as a specific cultural product of a specific place and time in my life that has had lasting effect just feels right fucking on. I'm sure my old friend would approve. 
Anthony C. Bleach

There really is no definitive album in Jawbreaker's discography, but in that sense, Unfun may be just as crucial as anything else in their catalogue.

The spectacularly heralded, endlessly romanticized Bay Area punk band produced four full-lengths with so many widely ranging points of contention among critics and fans regarding the band's musical trajectory and career decisions, it's left no one album to claim as the band's essential. If you ask Allmusic, they'll tell you 1993's 24 Hour Revenge Therapy is tops, with 1995's Dear You and 1990's Unfun in close range. Ask Steve Albini and he'll call it a "decent, if standard pop punk record of the type that was pretty common in the mid-90s"--and he produced the fucking thing. And if you navigate to Pitchfork, you'll see they took the time to shit all over Dear You--twice--before qualifying this recent reissue of the band's debut LP as "irrepressibly fun." Less jaded fans are probably prone to calling Dear You the classic; scene fixtures and musicians like Bob Nanna tend to place 24 Hour on said pedestal. In this reviewer's opinion, the band seemed to improve with every passing release (though the pronounced remaster on Unfun begs to differ the merits of said evaluation).

Still, though, trying to regard a place for Jawbreaker's first full-length within the canon of their catalogue seems near impossible, but that vague notion of status also makes it a little more vital to the full "Jawbreaker experience." In turn, perhaps that's what warrants a proper reissue of Unfun. Blackball's redux offers a remaster of the entire record, along with a bonus track--the 7" mix of "Busy." The band's 1989 EP, Whack & Blite, is here too, though it appeared on all original CD pressings anyhow. I don't believe the original 7" liner notes were replicated in the original Unfun booklet, however, and here they're represented for perusal in all their Xeroxed glory. Sound-wise, the remaster seems to add a little more "pop" to the overall mix; the percussive nuances are more distinct as well. As for the alternate "Busy" offered, Blake Schwarzenbach's voice seems a little sharper and the bass is turned up a bit, but it's largely not all that different.

Of course, the record itself has aged incredibly well. From Schwarzenbach's macadam-encrusted yelps on fan-favorite opener "Want" and the driven, emotional thrust on "Fine Day" that would hint at a career made on heartbreaking restraint, to the nimble, distortion-dipped fingering on "Busy" and Schwarzenbach's nasal, desperate commands on "Gutless" not to fall behind, its unfiltered, raw surge seemed relentless. Sure, the melodies were a little unrefined and the songs often stagnantly operated on the same rough, tumbling plane, but it still made for a bustling, impressive debut all the same. That it was a mere foundation for the ambitious, big hooks of 24 Hour and the polished moroseness of Dear You hardly hurts its relevance--Unfun was where they had the forward charge but still knew to occasionally proceed with caution. And hell, Whack & Blite closer, "Eye-5" was easily one of the most memorable songs in the front half of the band's catalogue, spiraling into an epic, sound clip-laden finish the band would rarely replicate in form for years.

So perhaps the minor bonus features here themselves are what makes Unfun just a little more essential, but the Jawbreaker chronology is still so overanalyzed and prodded at that missing out on any point could very well be remiss.

   San Francisco's Jawbreaker straddled a pivotal moment when emo was a "core": halfway between insult and genre, hardcore and pop, underground and mainstream. Their lyrics stressed both punk principles and emotional outpourings. Their music was furious but catchy, with a set of mannerisms that flowed smoothly into indie-rock, pop-punk, and alt-rock: palm-muted power chords laced with bright octaves and harmonics; guitar leads rounding off into whistling feedback; counter-melodic bass lines; and epic breakdowns with arty sampled monologues. They had lofty ideals, but their songs walked around on the streets, sullen and pissed, with fresh scabs and dog-eared volumes of Bukowski in their back pockets.

The phrase "emo-core" itself is a problematic compromise between hardcore and pop-- an angst-inducing identity for a young band. Blake Schwarzenbach was 22 when Jawbreaker's 1990 debut, Unfun, came out, and this was but one of the pressures that drove him. Recriminating tunefully through a shredded throat, he calibrated himself against a punk scene and adult world of coequal injustice. Unfun was Jawbreaker's punkest record, but he feared it wasn't punk enough: "Sorry we ain't hard enough to piss your parents off," he snipped on "Incomplete". His fretful intelligence often led him to dispense free psychological evaluations and strawman parables. There are many issues-based songs: "Softcore" is anti-porn, and "Seethruskin" is anti-racism. It gets almost Orwellian: "Don't think that I ain't counting all the things you do," Schwarzenbach bristles in scene-cop mode. (He always loved those sassy "ain'ts.") To that extent, the record earns its title.

Yet the music itself is irrepressibly fun. Drummer Adam Pfahler was a fucking behemoth, a whiz with galloping toms and breathtakingly long fills. He sounds great on this low-end boosted reissue, which, on CD and download, also includes the formative Whack & Blite EP. And Schwarzenbach's prickliness was ultimately sympathetic, because it stemmed from a vulnerability he laid bare in songs like "Want", where dark secrets are exorcised in the name of love. "So now you know where I come from," he sings, underlining it twice for emphasis: "My secret's come undone/ My heart reveals my cause." The world is fallen, but he's not dancing on the wreckage. He's looking for survivors, imploring on "Busy", "We're all close to the end; don't you need a friend?/ Honor your allegiances!"

By 1995's major-label but still-fierce swan song, Dear You, Jawbreaker seemed wholly out of step with the scene that revered them; a broken lineage made painfully clear by the terrible cover versions modern emo bands produce. Schwarzenbach managed one pretty great album with Jets to Brazil, Orange Rhyming Dictionary, before petering out into mojo-less soft rock. With reunion and documentary rumors rumbling, Jawbreaker is primed for renewed attention, though one wonders what emo fans raised on Dashboard Confessional, Warped Tour, and Vagrant Records will make of their pinched, petulant sound. Regardless, the original music stands tall. On Unfun, Jawbreaker's conviction that punk could open up to pop while staying hardcore burns more urgently than ever, in the retrospective light of futility.
Brian Howe

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