By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
After almost eight years, four albums, and 646 shows, Jawbox broke up like so many bands do, quietly and abruptly. The members of Jawbox never had a chance to say goodbye. There wasn't a swan-song single or farewell tour, not even a final, triumphant gig in its hometown of Washington, D.C. The only thing its fans were left with was a vague e-mail the band sent out in April 1997, thanking them for their support and declaring that Jawbox had "reached the end of its natural lifespan." That, as they say, was that.
At least it was until a few weeks ago: On November 2, a year and a half after the band called it quits, Jawbox finally offered a proper farewell, My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents, a vault-clearing 22-song compilation of rarities and live tracks. Assembled by bassist Kim Coletta, singer-guitarist-lyricist J. Robbins, and guitarist Bill Barbot--and released on Coletta's DeSoto Records--the album both ties up the loose ends and provides a starting point for nascent fans, and, if nothing else, proves Jawbox is worthy of a second look. Though Fugazi received more acclaim, Jawbox may well have been more influential, shoehorning the aggression of the so-called "harDCore" movement into a pop format. After spending the last few months rummaging through her past, Coletta isn't sure what kind of lasting impact Jawbox had. She's just glad it did.
"I really have no idea," she says, from DeSoto's offices in suburban Washington, D.C. "It's every band's hope that they leave some kind of fleeting impression, and I believe we've done that. I see bands compared to us in 'zine reviews, and it's flattering."
For some people, My Scrapbook may be their first look at Jawbox. During its time together, the band never really received the attention it deserved, spending its early years toiling in Fugazi's considerable shadow, and the latter part of its career defending itself for jumping from Ian MacKaye's idealistic indie Dischord Records to Atlantic Records. It was unfortunate, because the band's first two albums--1991's Grippe and 1992's Novelty--were every bit as powerful and thrilling as any Fugazi album, packed with guitar tension you couldn't have cut through with a team of lumberjacks. And the sell-out charge so often leveled when a band makes the move to a major label rang especially untrue in Jawbox's case. The two albums it released when it was in Atlantic's stable--1994's For Your Own Special Sweetheart and 1996's Jawbox--contained some of the band's best work.
Not that the label noticed or cared much: Atlantic dropped the band a few months after releasing Jawbox. A few months later, the band dropped itself and called it a day. Jawbox, for the most part, went its separate ways: J. Robbins and Bill Barbot formed a new band, Burning Airlines, with Robbins' former Government Issue bandmate, drummer Pete Moffett. Drummer Zach Barocas returned to his first love and entered film school. Bassist Kim Coletta turned the band's vanity label, DeSoto Records, into a full-time gig. Although the band still swears Atlantic had nothing to do with its decision, it's hard to believe them, especially when Coletta--declining to talk about Jawbox's split--only offers, "Atlantic doesn't deserve the press."
But My Scrapbook isn't about elevating Jawbox to its rightful place in the post-punk era. It's simply a 72-minute thank-you note to the people that did pay attention to the band and its impressive body of work. It contains five songs recorded live on legendary BBC DJ John Peel's show in 1994, two unreleased tracks, and four live cuts from the band's 1996 appearance at the HFStival, as well as seven covers the band recorded for various tributes and compilations and several other odds and ends. The album is nothing if not comprehensive, including everything from the first song it ever recorded ("Bullet Park" on 1989's Maximum Rock & Roll compilation They Don't Get Paid, They Don't Get Laid...) to one of the last (the unreleased "Apollo Amateur").
The exhaustive liner notes (contained in two booklets) are even more complete, living up to the Scrapbook part of the title. In one booklet, every show Jawbox played--spanning the years between its first gig at All Souls Church in D.C. on September 22, 1989, with Shudder to Think and Fugazi, to its last at R.I.T. in Rochester, New York, on February 14, 1997, with Transmission 56--has been carefully compiled. In the other booklet, which also contains 22 pages of photos, every appearance the band made on record is listed in scrupulous detail, down to the last catalog number and format variation.
For Coletta, compiling the album was a cleansing ritual, a way of finally coming to terms with a band that devoured almost a decade of her life. For a long time, Jawbox was her complete existence, consuming her free time and making all of her decisions for her. She had been there since the beginning; when Jawbox folded, Robbins and Coletta were the only two original members of the band (Barbot joined in 1990; Barocas in 1992). The band had formed in 1989 as a three-piece with drummer Adam Wade when Robbins decided to start singing his own songs and playing them on guitar after a stint as bassist in Government Issue. When the band ended, Coletta threw herself into running DeSoto--which the band had formed to release its own vinyl--turning it into a full-fledged label with a roster featuring Compound Red, The Dismemberment Plan, Shiner, and Burning Airlines. She came up with the idea for My Scrapbook, an idea that allowed her to close the book on Jawbox once and for all.
"The whole process of putting it together was cathartic for me," she says. "I took the breakup of Jawbox very hard, and it felt like a good form of closure. At first we thought about just releasing the Peel Session, but as we brainstormed we came up with more and more stuff until we had ourselves a full-blown compilation. I thought it would be a nice thank-you to our friends and serious fans."
Most of them should be pleased. Save for a few demos and live recordings, all of the band's leftovers have been reheated, repackaged just in time for Christmas. Once they took a look at what they had, the members of the band didn't have much trouble coming up with a track listing; the songs on the album practically chose themselves.
Fortunately, some of the music the band recorded during its 1996 appearance at the HFStival were among them. For the first time, other than an import-only live album released in Germany in 1995, the band's intense live show has been documented, preserved for fans who never had a chance to see the band in concert. The sound is better than most studio recordings the band made, beautifully capturing Robbins and Barbot's guitar sparring and the pummeling rhythms constructed by Coletta and Barocas. Appearing on the main stage at the annual radio festival hosted by D.C. alternative radio station WHFS, alongside such alternarock staples as Everclear and the Foo Fighters, Jawbox played at RFK Stadium in front of 60,000 hometown fans who couldn't have cared less. It wasn't exactly the same setting the band was used to. While the conditions may not have been optimal, the band decided to use the recording anyway.
"We were the token local band on the big stage," Coletta says. "We used that recording because they had a swanky 24-track board to tape all the bands. It came out sounding very good and didn't cost us a dime. Lots of people hadn't a clue who we were, but that didn't stop them from yelling and throwing beach balls around during our set."
Another highlight of the compilation is the band's eclectic assortment of covers, ranging from the pop-punk sound of the Buzzcocks ("Airwaves Dream") to the sludge-covered precision of Tar ("Static"). The band treats every song--including covers of The Cure, R.E.M., the Big Boys, Minor Threat--as though it were a Jawbox original, even roasting the Cole Porter chestnut "I've Got You Under My Skin" until it ignites with the band's own intensity. Coletta is also partial to the Porter song, which originally appeared on the Frank Sinatra tribute Chairman of the Board. "Good, slow burn," she says.
For now, My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents is the last time Coletta will appear on a record. While Robbins and Barbot jumped right back into another band--guys always do seem quick to rebound after breakups--Coletta is taking her time, content with running DeSoto and putting out records by bands she enjoys. But after jamming with Barbot recently, she realized music isn't completely out of her system. The experience left her believing she'll be in a band again someday, just not anytime soon. And don't expect My Scrapbook to be the first in a series, she says. After months of digging through it, the cupboard is bare.
"There's a few unfinished demos rattling around, but they'll never see the light of day," she says. "Some stuff was a no-brainer, like the Peel Session and the unreleased tracks. We chose the rest of the music based on what we really loved throughout the years. It was never meant to be a complete collection of rarities. It's stuff we're proud of." They should be.