Saturday, 17 September 2011

Jawbreaker - 24 Hour Revenge Therapy

After a promising start as a pop punk outfit with a gritty edge on Unfun, Jawbreaker began to experiment quite heavily, and the material on the Bivouac LP and Chesterfield King EP in 1992 came across as a confused mess. The songs weren’t bad, but a lot of energy was removed at times, leaving us with a record and a half of either flat or angry material. Despite the fact that the erratic nature of the formula brought up some great tracks (“Parabola”, bassist Chris Bauermeister’s “Sleep”, and “Face Down” spring to mind), the song from this part of the band’s history that gets revered above all others is “Chesterfield King”, a dull-sounding, ill-fitting cheery track that fails to live up to the hype.

The reason why a dull track became so celebrated? Not as shocking as you might think. Jawbreaker took their new sound and applied it to a more sensible rock formula. 1994’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy had just as much creative flair, but it was channelled into a more relatable vein rather than diluted in multiple directions. Nevertheless, it signalled a return to a sort of melodic punk, although the music was more mature. This was the music that Jawbreaker were remembered for, and “Chesterfield King” was the only thing from the Bivouac era that vaguely fit that mould.

The hoarse post-throat surgery vocal delivery of Blake Schwarzenbach gives the album a different feel, as well as being the subject of some of the lyrical content. Indeed, the last recorded track before surgery, “Kiss The Bottle”, sees Schwarzenbach’s voice resembling that of Rancid’s Matt Freeman, and I dread to think how 24 Hour Revenge Therapy would have turned out with that style of mad drunkard Louis Armstrong performance.

Immediately signalling a more lively performance, the drum roll that ferries “The Boat Dreams From The Hill” into port is anchored by simple but fun guitar chords, something the band had seemingly forgotten about. Without going overboard, it announced to the world that Jawbreaker was back to doing what it did best, but with a better sound. “Indictment” is one of what would prove to be some infamously ironic digs at major labels (1995’s Dear You album was released on DGC Records, and featured a smooth, smoky new singing voice from Schwarzenbach), and featured a slightly more restrained pace, but you can hear the busy drumming of Adam Pfaler wrestling to be noticed despite its blunted sound. With a working title of “Scathing Indictment Of The Pop Industry”, one of Jawbreaker’s most preachy songs proved to be the most flippant.

The band’s shortest track in their career, “Boxcar” is the only one to limbo underneath the two minute mark. Despite being another fingerpointing track, it highlighted a more historically agreeable sentiment. The expressed disillusionment with the punk scene may not have been the primary reason that they sounded so different a year later, but would have been a conspiring factor in their breaking up in 1996, when that scene had become as disillusioned with the band and booed the three-piece they once loved. The track itself is a bit more energetic and concise than “Indictment”, and although that was no bad track, having the similar but marginally better “Boxcar” after it makes it seem a little weaker than it actually is. Like “The Boat Dreams From The Hill”, “Boxcar” was rerecorded back in San Francisco in August 1993, after the band decided they weren’t happy with the versions recorded alongside what would become the bulk of the album that May in Chicago with Steve Albini.

“Outpatient” is where the music becomes more musically interesting. A relaxed intro eases its way in with Schwarzenbach painting pictures of hospital events around the surgery. With the shortest three tracks out of the way, “Outpatient” is stretched a bit thinner, giving Bauermeister’s four strings a chance to make themselves known, and the pace and energy change step a couple of times. There’s an instrumental break in the middle of the song that’s a bit dull, but it’s a minor blemish, leaving us with a track that stands out from those preceding it without making us dismiss them as trite. “Ashtray Monument” sees a temporary return to a more punk sound, although it’s more aggressive and features palm muting. This song is notable for introducing a more sincere anger to the record, a memorable pre-chorus hook, and Schwarzenbach’s inability to say the word “bottle” without a magic letter H. For a long time I wondered why there would be a “butthole on the nightstand”, but this is far less amusing to me than the aforementioned final track before these, "Kiss The Bottle", which of course our man sings as "Kiss The Butthole".

The third track recorded in San Francisco was “Condition Oakland”, and all of Schwarzenbach’s pompous poetry love comes to the fore. Charged, dynamic riffs steam along while the frontman talks about hoping to hear railway tracks sing and being an avid reader, but at least he admits that he’s crazy in the chorus, which is the highlight of a great track that’s marred by the use of sampling at the end. 24 Hour Revenge Therapy is very light on sampling as far as Jawbreaker records go, but it’s no less welcome. Beatnik Jack Kerouac rambles along to the piano of Steve Allen in periods of musical respite. Schwarzenbach may love Kerouac, but the only notable bit for me was mishearing him, thinking he said “…you can always see above the lesbian alley, puffs floating by from Oakland…”, and I was disappointed to find out that this was inaccurate. “Ache” was originally rejected from the Bivouac sessions. The chorus sounds a little like the one lively part of “Chesterfield King”, but the rest of the song is slow and downbeat, and we’re left with a song with an ebb and flow that complements “Condition Oakland” remarkably well. Bivouac’s loss is 24 Hour Revenge Therapy’s gain.

The highlight of the record comes fairly late on. “Do You Still Hate Me?” is vibrant and fairly direct, but it’s a cut above the likes of the opening tracks, and then some. A solid opening riff, fast work from Pfaler, an airy sing-along chorus and a simple but catchy yell-along-hoarsely post-chorus all contribute to the most tangible evidence of the band at the top of their game. No singles were released from the record, but if one was, this was the A-side, no question. “West Bay Invitational” brings back the sort of ill-tempered guitar that we saw in “Ashtray Monument”, and it’s of roughly similar quality for the most part, but without any vocal riff to take your attention as much. It’s no slouch, but fails to shine how most of the tracks have.

Ploughing to the back end of this album, “Jinx Removing” comes next, and it’s exactly what “Chesterfield King” wanted to be. An uplifting, slightly silly love song full of energy gives us the perfect cure to the stressed “West Bay Invitational”, while “Chesterfield King” failed to make a dent into a largely sulking album. Nevertheless, the record finishes in a downtrodden fashion. “In Sadding Around” builds up steadily. Bass meets palm muted guitar and low end drums, a sullen voice joins in, and then a feedback swarm slips into the background. The drums build up, a chunky snare steps up, the palm stops muting the guitar, and finally the chorus brings everything together with full drumming and a brilliantly sung chorus. An extended second chorus sees the album out, and while it wasn’t the kiss off that we were looking for, it’s a fine one that the album deserves.

What the album didn’t deserve was to be shortened. Also recorded during the Albini session were two songs that remained unreleased until the Etc compilation brought them into daylight. “First Step” is a little unusual in the way the guitar sounds at times, but its frenetic guitar work, outstanding tempo shift, tidy bridge, and sound vocal performance all point towards an album highlight. “Friends Back East” is a shorter number with a bouncy opening guitar and powerful kick in the hind legs, the last verse ending on the memorable line “my life’s a running joke, what am I running for?” as the guitar grits its teeth some. Both of these songs could have easily been added to the record without diluting the quality, in fact strengthening it.

24 Hour Revenge Therapy isn’t perfect, but it’s close. The lyrics are great for the most part, Schwarzenbach being poetic without being at his most indulgent, and his vocals are on top form, with this rough voice being the best and most convincing of the voices he’s adopted over the years (although his more relaxed style came good on the first Jets To Brazil album, 1998’s Orange Rhyming Dictionary). The rough sound works well, and the guitars stand out whether they’re at full tilt or reined in, without being too loud. Even though the drums are given a flat sound, they still propel the band, and the often understated bass fills the sound out nicely without trying to outdo anything around it. Almost everything works to perfection, and it’s a shame that the album could have been two tracks longer and still just as good. It almost feels insulting to rearrange the album to include the other songs, but it’s something I was compelled to do with the quality of them. There are so many fine tracks on here that it’s hard to pick two or three favourites, and even singling out weaknesses as only relative weaknesses is difficult to do.

Personal picks: Do You Still Hate Me?, First Step, In Sadding Around
Picks for others: Do You Still Hate Me?, Jinx Removing, Boxcar
Relative weaknesses: Indictment, West Bay Invitational

01 – The Boat Dreams From The Hill
02 – Indictment
03 – Boxcar
04 – Outpatient
05 – Ashtray Monument
06 – Condition Oakland
07 – Ache
08 – Do You Still Hate Me?
09 – West Bay Invitational
10 – Jinx Removing
11 – In Sadding Around

Author’s recommended tracklist
01 – The Boat Dreams From The Hill
02 – Friends Back East
03 – Boxcar
04 – Outpatient
05 – Ashtray Monument
06 – Jinx Removing
07 – Condition Oakland
08 – Ache
09 – Do You Still Hate Me?
10 – First Step
11 – West Bay Invitational
12 – Indictment
13 – In Sadding Around