While it may be conventional wisdom that punk is a rebellion against mainstream culture, the truth is that just as often what punk rebels against is itself. The act of punk rockers distancing themselves from the strictures of their own subculture is a time-honored tradition: Think of Johnny Rotten becoming John Lydon for Public Image Ltd.; the Clash expanding their short, sharp shocks to fit their "only band that matters" ambitions; the late-in-the-game Bikini Kill admission "I Like Fucking"; or Bob Mould pleading for his audience to "Be who you really are/And don't pay any attention to me" on Hüsker Dü's "It's Not Funny Anymore." While a good number of fans always see this evolution as compromise, these transitions are perfectly punk: freedom and discovery growing from rejection, a "no" becoming a "yes."
A recent case in point is Jets to Brazil, particularly the band's singer/songwriter/guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach. Jets to Brazil was born out of the remains of Schwarzenbach's earlier band, the seminal Bay Area trio Jawbreaker, which released a trio of beloved indie albums in the early '90s and followed Nirvana to major label DGC for one record (1995's Dear You) before imploding.
In their day, Jawbreaker was the credible face of pop-punk, but by their indie farewell, 1993's 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, Schwarzenbach was resisting the limitations of the band's scene. This tension came to a head on the album's standout anthem, "Boxcar." (An alternate version of the song is included on Jawbreaker's recently released rarities compilation Etc., which also includes the rarely heard "Kiss the Bottle," a song perhaps best known in these parts as a staple of local band Lucero's live sets.) "You're not punk/And I'm telling everyone," Schwarzenbach opens, mimicking the sellout taunts of former fans, before continuing, "Save your breath/I never was one." The song ends with a chant -- "You're on your own!/You're all alone!" -- that may read pessimistic but sounds like an exultant grasp at freedom.
Schwarzenbach gave those same critics a surprise with Jets to Brazil, which reveals the onetime great punk hope as a good-hearted guy who wanted to be in a band where he could play piano and sing lyrics such as "How long will it take before I wake up unafraid to take you in my arms/And hold you like a lucky charm?" or "If ever I should seem to take for granted/This lovely life that I have been handed/Darling, don't just stand there/Come knock me around," which he does on Jets to Brazil's most recent album, late 2002's Perfecting Loneliness. With his heart-on-sleeve sensitivity and talent for bumper-sticker-worthy aphorisms, Jets to Brazil presents Schwarzenbach as a reformed punk who's been turned on to All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten and Chicken Soup for the Soul. And while a lot of Jets to Brazil's emo brethren may sound similarly syrupy, there's a maturity (musical and lyrical) and pastoralism to Jets to Brazil's music that's quite a bit more audacious than their contemporaries. The result is a "punk" band that walks a tightrope between sentimentality and soulfulness, sometimes with stunning aplomb, sometimes on the brink of disaster.
Over the course of the band's seven years and three albums, Schwarzenbach & Co. (bassist Jeremy Chatelain, drummer Chris Daly, and guitarist Brian Maryansky) have watched the emo scene they once seemed to most fully represent mutate from underground hype to mainstream force, with their onetime tour openers Jimmy Eat World becoming MTV regulars and a host of younger, less expressive acts becoming semi-stars. Still plying their trade for the Wilmington, Delaware, label Jade Tree (which is to emo as Kill Rock Stars was to riot-grrl, or something like that), their DIY iconoclasm occasionally pokes through their pretty, suburban punk, as on Four Cornered Night's declaration of principles ("It's not what you sell/It's what you make") or Perfecting Loneliness' virulent anti-Dubya missive "Disgrace" ("Who put all these criminals in charge?/Did they win, or just hold the cards?").
If the band's debut, Orange Rhyming Dictionary (recorded in Memphis at Easley-McCain Studio), was a transitional record and Perfecting Loneliness the sound of a band settling into their sound, 2000's Four Cornered Night is Jets to Brazil's strongest, and most divisive, statement. Their softest, prettiest, most emotionally expansive record, it inspired several raves and more than a few angry dismissals among Jawbreaker fans. One online reviewer on an alt-rock specialty site even accused the band of making music for "30-year-olds" (not 30-year-olds, the horror!).
But it's easy to see why some would be upset, because Four Cornered Night is an unabashedly pretty, achingly sincere, and unavoidably square record. It's something of a post-punk Pet Sounds in the way it maps out the romantic travails of early adulthood. The persona communicated by Schwarzenbach is downbeat but still generous and hopeful, lamenting a lost love and (more subtly) lost youth with self-awareness and palpable affection.
Songs like "One Summer Last Fall" and "In the Summer's When You Really Know" are casually epic, spinning off-the-cuff observations into nostalgic and romantic testaments. On the former, Schwarzenbach manages to instill lyrics like "Kid, what went wrong?/We had it all, now it's all gone/I blew my mind out/Now it's your turn to find out" with an undercurrent of hope, and the way he spikes lines throughout the song with the word "kid" serves the same function of encouraging a sense of community between artist and listener as Bruce Springsteen's "sir"s do on Nebraska.
The standout is a daring piano ballad called (does this title bait detractors or what?) "All Things Good and Nice." Depending on how generous you're feeling, it's either too saccharine to swallow or brave and inspirational. But given the times, it's difficult not to hear it as an intentional rebuke to the aggressively dark and solipsistic rock music that's held such a relative stranglehold on the marketplace in recent years, especially when Schwarzenbach delivers this bit of big-brother wisdom: "Some will say the truth is not so plain/But don't confuse the truth with your pain."
with John Vanderslice
Young Avenue Deli
Thursday, June 5th