Friday, January 9, 2009

Jets to Brazil. Orange Rhyming Dictionary (Jade Tree, 1998)

"You're such a willing stick to beckon that wanting knife/ You've been looking for it, the right blade all your life/ Saying, 'Who's gonna cut me down to a size that suits me?/ Is there a worthy sculptor among all you fine young knives?'"

Orange Rhyming Dictionary is a great album, but it occupies a precarious position. On the one hand, it can be considered the apogee of first-wave emo, an unfailingly hooky album steeped in post-hardcore belligerence and bleary-eyed sentiment, a nearly perfect blend of aggression and vulnerability. On the other, you can trace its influence in any number of kohl-eyed, velvet-jacketed, confusingly-coiffed 21st century "emo" bands -- your Good Charlottes, your My Chemical Romances -- currently violating the airwaves, trying -- and failing, annoyingly -- to nail this album's sound.

But can we really blame them for trying? Because the sound captured by Jets to Brazil on Orange Rhyming Dictionary is fantastic, loaded with unforgettable melodies, thrilling dynamics, unpredictable progressions, and clever wordplay. There's not a tune on the album any less than great, and the great tunes are, like, super-great.

Singer and guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach, previously the frontman for the mighty Jawbreaker, pulled together Jeremy Chatelain on bass and John Daly on drums to form this outfit after Jawbreaker called it quits. They named the band after Audrey Hepburn's poster in Breakfast at Tiffany's, got signed to emo-tastic Delaware label Jade Tree, and pulled in DC indie stalwart J. Robbins (Government Issue, Jawbox, Burning Airlines) to produce. The end result was the startlingly grand Orange Rhyming Dictionary (nothing rhymes with orange, gettit?).

Drawing on punk, new wave, and a healthy dose of good ol' meat and potatoes classic rock -- there's a lot of Free, Guess Who, Grand Funk Railroad, and Mott the Hoople on display here -- Jets to Brazil craft an inaugural LP that stands as one of the best of the decade. It's rough in all the right places, smooth in others, sensitive and bullying alternately, complex but easy to enjoy. Robbins's production fits like a glove, placing Schwarzenbach's distinctive sandpaper tenor at center stage while also capturing the band's power trio energy. The bass, drums, and guitars (Schwarzenbach's guitar tone throughout is incredible, by the way -- it sounds like a Telecaster Deluxe, maybe) play off one another intuitively, imbuing a sense of intimacy into the most thrashing moments.

Crown of the Valley starts things off with a sweet crunchy wah riff and slamming drums, a nice glammy number with vaguely paranoid class-conscious lyrics (lyrically, the album tends towards the impressionistic throughout, though Schwarzenbach has a tendency for startling turns of phrase). "Thought we had the lock in '54/ Now the maid owns the house next door/ And what's more, swims in the pool she used to clean." The way the track moves from tight semi-funk to wide open power chord jam and back is pretty rad, and the double-fisted melody beats its way into your brain right away.

From then on, the album refuses to let up. "Morning New Disease" rides an acid surf guitar line and a charging bass-n-drums section for just over four minutes, a showcase for Schwarzenbach's locked-on rhythm chops. The dystopic "Resistance is Futile" is an anthem for an increasingly surveillance-prone society, a tightly wound descending chord motif giving way to dark guitar chimes and a tension-filled solo. "You're never too small for our attention/ You watch TV while we watch you/ You're never too small for our attention/ You're never so small that we can't find you."

"Starry Configurations" starts off gentle, with ricochet guitar lines and softly insistent rhythms setting up shimmering chords before transitioning into rockier sonic territory after the 2:00 mark. "My dear diary/ It's just you and me/ Tonight!" bellows Schwarzenbach in probably the most emo lyric ever. Later, "Lemon Yellow Black" just stomps and stomps, Schwarzenbach raking his six strings without remorse as Chatelain and Daly fight it out behind him, later stretching out into full-blown guitar hero mode for the solo.

The unhurried, loosely played Sea Anemone is simply lovely, a dark lullaby strewn with bright jangles and melancholy conviction. The guitar solo that comes in at 2:41 is like tiny pinpricks to the heart, especially when combined with the song's disquieting lyrics: "Now I'm making out the shapes/ Like the shower rod -- can it take my weight?" Similarly, album closer "Sweet Avenue" is touching and placid without being boring, a luminously acoustic romantic ode with a sweetly driving tempo and glittering major keys.

My favorite song here -- and one of my favorite songs ever, truth be told -- is King Medicine, a sprawling mini-epic in several parts, all awesome. The savagely sing-song melody and ringing instrumentation -- the bass line on this track is particularly impressive -- are addictive, an unrelenting jolt to your pleasure centers. Check out the "chop-chop-chop" rhythm riff at 2:30, or the cascading monster chords at 3:22, or the unwinding solo at 4:00 for proof of this song's undeniable power.

For me, emo essentially began in '85 with Rites of Spring's debut, and ended in '98 with Jets to Brazil's debut. Not a bad run, and you couldn't ask for a better capstone in Orange Rhyming Dictionary, a catchy, sweet-n-sour collection of slightly down in the mouth anthems that never forgets to have a good time,
and one of the most consistently enjoyable albums in my collection.