As I mentioned when discussing Knapsack a while back, there was a time (the '80s and '90s, to be specific) when the term "emo" was not strictly pejorative. Not so nowadays. Nowadays "emo" is, like, Dashboard Confessional and My Chemical Romance and Good Charlotte and eyeliner and side-worn belt buckles and shit. Complicated hair. TRL (RIP). Whine + piss-poor glam. Epically lame.
But that's not how it used to be. When emo first rolled out of its chronically unmade bed, it was hardcore's thoughtful, bespectacled cousin (who drank before classes), with slower tempos and a more thoughtful (ie.,"concerned about things other than parents, Reagan, conformity, and drunk jocks") approach. Plus -- and this is the crux -- emo was melodic. It was catchy. You could sing -- not just shout and punch -- along to it. It maintained the raw energy of punk and hardcore and combined it with the thrilling, joyful hookiness of new wave and pop. Perfect.
And some of the best purveyors of golden-era emo were the guys in San Francisco's Jawbreaker. Starting with 1990's Unfun, singer/guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach, bassist Chris Bauermeister, and drummer Adam Pfahler cranked out some of the catchiest, hardest-hitting power trio bluster around, and left a string of great albums to show for it. Unfun, 1992's Bivouac, and, most importantly, 1994's 24 Hour Revenge Therapy are as bracing a trio of heart-on-sleeve indierock platters as you're likely to find (underwhelming final album Dear You, released in 1995, unfortunately saw these guys go out with a whimper instead of a bang, but knowing Jawbreaker, they did it on purpose just to be Hollow Men).
24 Hour Revenge Therapy is an incredibly solid set of songs. The entire album hangs together expertly, each tune moving from one to the next in logical succession, establishing a thrilling dynamic over the course of its 37+ minutes. It sounds great, as well: in what seems to be becoming an Act Surprised tradition, this record was produced by Steve Albini (though the liner notes credit the album's engineering to Albini's cat Fluss). The guitars have that dry, harsh edge to them, tempered only by the strong melodicism of the lines. The bass and drums are aimed at the gut, insistently high in the mix. This is especially satisfying where the drums are concerned: Pfahler's chops are a thing of wonder. His eight-armed octopus style hits hard but displays the virtuosity and timing of jazz. The guy's all over the place and right where he needs to be every time.
Schwarzenbach is lucky enough to possess one of the most distinctive voices in the biz, to boot (which you can also hear in his subsequent band Jets to Brazil -- named after a poster hanging in Audrey Hepburn's apartment in Breakfast at Tiffany's. How emo!). I once read that he was inspired by the Psychedelic Furs' Richard Butler, and it shows: his hoarse, sandpaper rasp makes me want to buy a lozenge every time I hear it (Schwarzenbach actually had to have an operation on his throat to heal the damage before recording 24 Hour Revenge Therapy). But it conveys an eloquently wounded aggression, wrapping his smarty-pants lyrics in a nice barbed-wire bow for your listening pleasure.
And there's plenty of pleasure to go around on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. Album opener "The Boat Dreams From the Hill" gets things started with a distorted wash of thrusting guitar and manic drum fills; the hectic ride cymbal hits of the chorus make the song. "I wanna be a boat," sings Schwarzenbach, "I wanna learn to swim/ Then I'll learn to float/ Then begin again." It's melancholy and triumphant all at once. "Indictment" is an accusatory finger pointed straight at the hardcore doctrinarians, as Schwarzenbach admits, "I just wrote the dumbest song/ It's gonna be a sing along" before declaring, "It won't bother me, what the thoughtless are thinking/ I am more concerned with what we're drinking" as the band bounces along happily. "Boxcar" is a withering mission statement: "You don't know what I'm all about/ Like killing cops and reading Kerouac."
Kerouac, incidentally, shows up again a little later in one of the album's most affecting passages: on album centerpiece "Condition Oakland," the band integrates snippets of the beatest Beat reciting portions from his "Lonesome Traveler" on the Steve Allen show. It sounds like the twee-est thing ever, I know, but it's actually breathtaking: Allen's tinkling piano and Kerouac's weary-child inflections mix with the jagged Jawbreaker instrumentation in a charming bit of alchemy. Pure gold.
"Ache" and "Do You Still Hate Me?" are two of the most typically emo tracks in the collection, focusing on that old chestnut: girls and their tendency to break up with boys. "Lean your head on mine like you used to do," Schwarzenbach pleads on the former, "Used to your lean/ I don't mind if you're faking it." Ouch. Chin up, guy. On "Do You Still Hate Me?" a rush-and-punch guitar gallop keeps the singer company as he cries, "Are we talking?/ Are we fighting?/ Is it over?/ Are we writing?" The last 23 seconds of the song slay, as Schwarzenbach's guitar rides out the wreckage on a wave of trebly mutilation.
Listening to Jawbreaker (and living through the last eight years in America) makes me pine for the '90s. It was awesome: everyone loved us and the Internets were brand new! And if someone asked, "What do they sound like?" you could say "They're pretty emo" without getting laughed at/beat up. And for good reason. Jawbreaker and their fellow travelers were the best of the emo lot, and 24 Hour Revenge Therapy is the best Jawbreaker ever gave us. Thanks, you sad sappy suckers.