Jawbreaker, Redux: Forgetters Recall Their Roots

First, the fast back story. In 1994 the Bay Are trio Jawbreaker was on the short list for Next Nirvana honors. They’d just released a smart and successful indie album and even supported Kurt and the gang on tour.

The band's singer, songwriter and guitarist, Blake Schwarzenbach, wrote bounding, literate, often hyper-local anthems about pony-keg-powered house parties, girls he adored, girls he did not adore and books. Kerouac and cop killing lived in a single lyrical line. Fans and critics swooned at his wiry good looks and the group’s hard hooks.

You can probably guess what happened next.

Major labels lined up, Jawbreaker picked one, produced a perhaps too-slick record, hardcore fans revolted and the band soon broke up.

You probably can’t guess what happened then.

Schwarzenbach moved to Brooklyn, hit the books and landed an adjunct teaching gig in Hunter College's English department. He switched gears and seemed to give up on guitars (even, sadly, selling one on eBay). But a few years passed and things changed. He found other indie heroes and started other bands. Jets to Brazil made three albums of brighter, meandering rock you might call prog-punk. Thorns of Life leaned rougher than Jets -- they played a few energetic Brooklyn parties before quietly breaking up last year.

What looked like the end was just a slow beginning. Schwarzenbach formed a new trio -- with one-time Against Me! drummer Kevin Mahon and bassist Caroline Paquita, formerly of the band Bitchin' -- with which to rebuild some Thorns songs and start fresh. The result is forgetters (capitalization be damned!), which has just released four songs, available on vinyl as a double 7-inch, and as digital downloads.

With these howling bouts of rock rage, Schwarzenbach has gone home again musically, but he’s arrived a changed man. That is, the songs sound like what they are: Jawbreaker, as written by a 43-year-old man. The bass rumbles forebodingly while the drums explode -- at the center of the storm Schwarzenbach sings with a sharp bark and waves a wand, three chords magically sound like 33. The songs are equal parts cerebral and visceral. Whereas he might've been tempted to over-write on Jets songs (“Starry configurations, I’m just a receiver/ Divine recombinations, I’m just a recordist”), he’s returned to his earlier efficiency here, and he can still nail tricky emotions in 23 words flat, as he does on “Vampire Lessons”: “I’ll call you in the dark and we’ll go all the way/ It can’t go on like this but there’s no other way.”

Schwarzenbach has grown increasingly interested in politics and those passions show up on forgetters set lists in a song about the ravages of war in Afghanistan. On this EP's "Too Small to Fail" he sings pointedly: "The trace effects of these foreign wars -- I'm not sitting it out, I'm still in shock."

That’s not to say that his burning romanticism has faded one flicker. “Too Small to Fail” ends with the desperate, repeated line: “Someone’s gonna love me some day.” When the singing stops, several seconds of guitar feedback lingers. It’s a low electric moan that could be the sound of a rock star flat-lining. Unless, luckily, he’d taken lessons from a vampire.

Disclosure: Schwarzenbach lives in the same apartment building that I do; we are not close friends by any stretch but we do say hello in the elevator.

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