Saturday, 4 December 2010

Jawbox - Novelty / Tongues

In the year 1992, Jawbox released Novelty, a 10-song LP, on Dischord in their native Washington, DC. This record tends to exist with the Tongues single as bonus tracks tagged on the end. Me, I love the idea of getting two records in one. But while I also like the idea of getting all the songs I can, I don't like the idea of bonus tracks. But I'm cool with the twelve tracks above ten here for two reasons. The bonus tracks don't suck, and as far as my computer is concerned, they can easily be organised as two separate records. More on that later.

I love Novelty. I love For Your Own Special Sweetheart, which all the critics say is their magnum opus, but I love Novelty more. Novelty is mixed atrociously, which would turn people away in droves. It has the same low master volume that Grippe has, and here the band are cramming an extra guitar into that limited field, so you're often really struggling to pull out two individual guitars and a bass. However, within the murky depths of this record you can find a number of good and great songs that are woven into a fine album piece. If you like having music on in the background, don't buy this record, spend the money on a cheap, second-hand, noisy washing machine for the same effect and gain the ability to clean your clothes in an extra convenient place. If you like to have music in the very foreground of what you're doing, think again. If you like to just listen to a record and call that an activity, then definitely think again, because that's when this record becomes something of a treasure trove.

A whirring guitar introduces us to the album opener, "Cutoff", and is soon accompanied by rhythm guitar, Kim Coletta's bass, and some drumming with the snare very prominent in the mix, courtesy of Adam Wade's last recording for the band before moving on to Shudder To Think. The verses see J Robbins' droning vocals, accompanied throughout by the subdued instruments of Wade, Coletta, and Bill Barbot's rhythm guitar at the very bottom of the guitar range, with Robbins' guitar doing some jangling for the second half to add a little something else. The chorus is vocally just a couple of mentions of the track title, but the guitars surge into the middle and keep things interesting. And to cap it off, as the guitars sink back down for a growling riff, some haunting background harmonies juxtapose against it in a way that strangely works. No foreground vocals for the last minute and a half see more of the post-chorus and a little guitar soloing. The opening track takes its time to melt away, but the next cut rears its head in no time. "Tracking" kicks and snarls, and Robbins' vocal delivery is that bit rougher than in the proceeding track, and indeed most of the record. The intro storms in with real purpose, but flows seamlessly into the first verse. That the rest of the song isn't quite as intriguing as songs like "Cutoff" are made up for with its pounding energy.

Next up we have "Dreamless", featuring swirling guitars and a far more melodic Robbins, and this probably explains why this was the one song from Jawbox's years before they signed to Atlantic that really caught the attention of music lovers that weren't into the ever-evolving Washington, DC sound. While the song certainly isn't a simplistic attempt at a radio hit, the pop sensibilities of "Dreamless" do help it survive the poor finish of Novelty relatively unscathed, because the song's strength is its tunefulness rather than its complexity, and that tunefulness is not lost in the mix. It's still a moody number that fits into the album well enough, and features Bill Barbot adding a layer of flat backing vocals that don't run parallel underneath Robbins' crooning chorus, to remind us that the band have still given this song a piece of Jawbox complexity to keep the record from going stale, which they manage well despite the incredibly dulling effect of the mix. The song finishes with a bit of an angry little flourish, and screeching but friendly-seeming guitar feedback announces the arrival of "Channel 3", which at times seems to be giving us a more lighthearted take on the wall-of-sound played much more vehemently by Jawbox's contemporaries as well as Jawbox themselves. While you wouldn't find yourself singing along to it, "Channel 3" is annoyingly catchy. Both Robbins and Barbot are being all nice and tuneful vocally, and you have to be paying attention to detect the occasional presence of a grim undercurrent that ties this song into Novelty's dark tapestry. Barbot's increasing vocal presence on the record comes to a head as he delivers lead vocals on the next cut. "Spiral Fix" leaks into existence, as some guitar plucking drips in, and Barbot's paranoid voice seeps in just over the top. The full band fall into the mix at times to add some aggression whilst keeping the song tempo treading at a nervously slow place. While "Channel 3" isn't one of Novelty's faster songs, "Spiral Fix" really shoves the mood down and, being one of the album's longest pieces, pins it there firmly.

The second half of the album gives us "Linkwork", which greets us with a more grudging feedback than "Channel 3". The paranoia of "Spiral Fix" is maintained and further darkened, and the pace is only picked up marginally, as Robbins sounds out the least lyrically abstract lyrics on the album (though still more veiled than your average rock band), and Wade throws in a lot of bass drum. The chorus vocals hark back to the aggression of "Tracking", though more consumed by the evil of "Linkwork". The guitars hover at similar levels throughout, and never relinquish the song's murky nature that epitomises Novelty. "Chump" signals a structural change in the album, where it and the remaining songs of Novelty proper see Robbins' vocals jump straight into the breach with the first verse without an instrument-only introduction, his voice having bided its time in the preceding tracks. Novelty is not a fast record, but after some particularly slow songs, the presence of the most urgent track here is particularly welcome. Also the shortest, "Chump" doesn't really do much in terms of sonic agility relative to its longer and more artistic neighbours, but the instrumental bridges and the presence of a guitar solo easily distinguished in the mix keep things themed but fresh. Ending as soon as it starts, we're treated to a novel concept on the record. "Static" begins with no guitars, and Coletta's bass guitar is actually audible beneath Robbins' gentle singing and Barbot's muted shouting. After the subdued start, the band comes to life and delivers another of the album's poppier cuts. While Robbins' vocals are strained with bitterness at times, this is largely a tuneful performance. Much like "Dreamless", "Static" comes out of the mix sounding relatively intact. Some more audible bass comes out near the end of the track, followed by a relatively predictable guitar solo outro. Some guitar harmonics compete with a sullen Robbins to introduce "Spit-Bite", which almost makes it seem out of place on Novelty. The chorus with its almost too sweet vocal harmonies doesn't do much to help, although the prominence of that omnipresent snare drum keep the track woven in, and if you hold on through the second chorus, the song takes a violent moodswing, relenting only once for another chorus, and the last minute of the track sees the guitars gradually crash and burn from the outgoing riff into a wall of feedback, that ends rather suddenly.

"Send Down" was recorded earlier along with the two cuts released on the Tongues single, but released as the last song on the original release of Novelty. I'm not entirely sure whether its inclusion at the end of the record was just to get the song released on petroleum, or whether it was one of Robbins & Co's more sharply defined dynamic shifts. If you look at the reasonably well seamed but ultimately still noticeable feature of Grippe, the band's debut album, that seems to suggest that they recorded a bunch of songs in a session and released them all, you might lean towards the former, and believe that the howling feedback that "Spit-Bite" leaves us with is the spiritual closer to Novelty. However, you might just as well look at some of the shifts in Jawbox's subsequent album pieces, such as from the relatively sedate and melodic lead single "Savory" to the immediately attacking "Breathe" featuring Bill Barbot on lead vocals, as found on 1994's For Your Own Special Sweetheart, or on their self-titled swan song from 1996, where we fade out from the sweet minimalistic ballad "Iodine", only to be charged down by the blistering "His Only Trade" that sees Barbot playing the response in a violent vocal call and response with Robbins before we realise what hit us. If you do look at these, you'll look at "Send Down" as a final kick in the teeth as Jawbox break the slight clich├ęd idea of ending on a wall of feedback to land a few more blows on the way out. And this track certainly does that, although the song doesn't stand too well on its own among the plethora of gems crafted by the band. Robbins is almost screaming for most of the song, taking the mantle of aggression from "Tracking" with real malevolence, and it isn't the most lyrically or musically interesting. The bridge in the middle of the song hints at a little melody, but it lasts all of three lines. Not that I mind, the song was too aggressive to turn into a pop song halfway through, but the ability of Jawbox to squeeze melody into dissonant cacophony is why we love them more than just another indie band.

And to the Tongues single, or "tracks 11 and 12", depending on how you choose to view it. "Tongues" is a neat song, and was a great demonstration of how the band was changing from the Grippe era. Bill Barbot had joined the band, and brought his vocals along with his guitar, and the music produced by the band was getting a little more complex. Barbot isn't quite as good a vocalist as Robbins, and Robbins, while certainly listenable, isn't the world's best singer, but this is no Mould-Barbe type vocal pairing (which should be considered as "acquired taste" paired with "squeaky door hinges") in any way other than the recorded output proportion. Barbot leads vocal duties on "Tongues", and the pair harmonise quite well during the chorus. A guitar effect chimes in a fairly relaxed demeanour to start with, but before long, the rest of the instruments kick in and the song starts cruising. One guitar works its way up the frets, and before long Barbot gives us a minimalist verse, and quickly rolls into the simple but great chorus. The guitars swarm in the mid range for a bit, Robbins delivers a line or two, Barbot does another couple of lines, and the song rolls through another verse, chorus and this bit again. Cue some more nice vocal harmonies about tongues, and the guitars gradually fade out once all that's done. Very deserving of a single release, and if anyone were to listen to a Jawbox discography and pulled up "Tongues" after finishing with Grippe, they would agree that Barbot was a sound addition to the Jawbox line-up, before Novelty and subsequent albums could even confirm it. I think the version yielded from the BBC session for John Peel is also great, despite being different. I usually have a very distinct favourite between different versions of songs, but the official version is only a marginal pick for me. The Peel version has a different intro, and Barbot and Robbins aren't harmonising as much in the outro. The vocal performance, as is typical with Jawbox recordings outside of their main releases, was a bit below their best, but doesn't suffer from the poor mix that plagued Novelty and the single. Check it out on the My Scrapbook Of Fatal Accidents comp released in 1998 after Jawbox broke up. Returning to base to finish up, we're given "Ones And Zeroes" as the B-side. I'm probably in a minority in actually preferring it to "Tongues", but I do prefer the increased intensity of the song, which helps make the changes in the song stand out more in the flat mix given to the dozen tracks. Lots of catchy harmonic vocals, trademark melody without an entirely obedient song structure, lots of snare akin to Novelty, and one guitar can be heard doing something distinctly different to the other strings for most of the song. Lots of energy that's not entirely aggressive, kind of like "Chump" but in a better mood. Whether you're into bonus tracks or not, be grateful that these two tracks can be yours with the album, and learn to forgive Ian Burgess for not giving the record the sound it deserved. If Ted Nicely was in the production seat as he was for For Your Own Special Sweetheart, Novelty still wouldn't get the widespread accolades of its successor, which is packed to the rafters with hooks and melodies accompanying the Jawbox dynamic oddities and tricky songwriting, and is deserving as the favourite of the many fortunate enough to be clued into the bands catalogue. But Novelty showcases the band at their darkest, and is a brilliant record for anyone familiar with Jawbox. Like 1993's In On The Kill Taker, the most cathartic record in the Fugazi discography, Novelty would make a poor introduction to the band that made it, but can be seen as perhaps the best artistic achievement, by a whisker.

Personal picks: Cutoff, Tracking, Ones And Zeroes, Linkwork,
Picks for others: Dreamless, Static, Tongues, Cutoff
Relative weaknesses: Send Down

Tracklist

Novelty
01 - Cutoff
02 - Tracking
03 - Dreamless
04 - Channel 3
05 - Spiral Fix
06 - Linkwork
07 - Chump
08 - Static
09 - Spit-Bite
10 - Send Down

Tongues
01 - Tongues (11 on Novelty release)
02 - Ones And Zeroes (12 on Novelty release)

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