God only knows what anyone loafing around Arlington, Virginia-based Inner Ear Studios thought upon hearing playbacks of Jets to Brazil's just-released second album, Four Cornered Night. Recording home to bands such as Fugazi, Bluetip, the defunct Jawbox (whose former frontman, J. Robbins, has produced both Jets to Brazil discs), and other like-sounding groups who have pushed hardcore to the edges of aggression and experimentation, the smooth pop-rock wafting out of the studio was more likely to conjure visions of Topanga Canyon and a circa-1970s sunset than the politically charged landscapes of any of Inner Ear's other clients.
Rooted firmly in the American pop tradition, Four Cornered Night retains the same band members who were featured on Jets' debut, 1998's Orange Rhyming Dictionary, but their presence is about the only holdover. Augmented by strings and piano, and set at a rather leisurely pace, the album is a decidedly more downbeat affair than the growling guitars of the debut. Even more so than the previous record, it puts a healthy amount of distance between Jets and the band members' previous groups.
Composed of drummer Chris Daly, bassist Jeremy Chatelain, guitarist Brian Maryansky, and singer-guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach--all of whom have spent time in seminal underground rock outfits of the recent past: Texas is the Reason, Handsome, The Van Pelt, and Jawbreaker, respectively--Jets to Brazil has been dealing with unreasonable expectations from its inception. When Orange Rhyming Dictionary was released, it was one of the most anticipated and scrutinized debuts of recent memory. But when critics couldn't directly align it with any of the band members' previous projects, they went searching for references. And many of them came up with the same word.
"The first couple of times I saw the Britpop reference I didn't mind so much," Schwarzenbach says over the phone from his home in Brooklyn. "But it just seemed like everyone was falling back on that, and it was lazy. And most of all, it was just wrong, totally off-base."
Critics could be forgiven for jumping to the nearest conclusion. After all, the layered nature of the guitars on Orange Rhyming Dictionary (all played by Schwarzenbach, as Maryansky would join the band after the record was completed) called to mind the work of shoe-gazerBrit bands like Ride, while Schwarzenbach's vocals had calmed from the throaty shout of Jawbreaker, to a snarl comparable to Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs. When every attempt at comparison starts a new British Invasion, it's not hard to get the wrong impression.
So, with that in mind, if listening to Four Cornered Night sounds like the group is screaming, "We're an American Band," Schwarzenbach agrees.
"It's a very American record, especially in the lyrics," he says. "There are stories on the album that could only be heard in America. I think it's a local record. There's a failed romance that's at the center of the album. And one song in particular ("Mid-Day Anonymous") deals with a murder, a very American murder."
The record shows Schwarzenbach, maturing as a songwriter, dealing with those themes of heartbreak and violence in a far more consistent way than he did on Orange Rhyming Dictionary, which was hindered slightly by the scattered content of the songs.
"The first album was written over the course of a few years, sort of in the aftermath of Jawbreaker," he explains. "I had demoed them on an eight-track in my apartment, and then the band sort of worked off of those tapes. Four Cornered is a much more personal record, it's more focused. I was in a cabin in Canada, on vacation, and I had a piano and a limited amount of time, and that's where most of the songs came from."
The sound is relaxed and tuneful, Schwarzenbach's voice right up front as the band plays with a seasoned economy, as if they'd been working this kind of laconic pop for years. Even the songs with more teeth, like the somewhat glam-sounding "Milk and Apples," have melody as their first priority. The album marks the first time Schwarzenbach has shared guitar playing duties in the studio. "It was hard to give up that control at first, but Brian is such an amazing player," he says. "It gave me a chance to concentrate on vocals and especially keys and acoustic guitar."
Schwarzenbach's expanded palette presents his songs in Technicolor, with a solo more likely coming from a Hammond organ than a distorted electric guitar, though the band exhibits the same kind of swagger as on Orange Rhyming Dictionary, and Schwarzenbach's lyrics continue to mix effective observations with a striking sense of imagery. Yet while the new sound isn't necessarily a self-consciously retro one, it does make the listener wonder what kind of template the band was working from.
"I don't know, it just seems like a natural progression to me: I was listening to Sweetheart of the Rodeo by The Byrds a lot," Schwarzenbach says. "And I was very influenced by that album's tone, but I don't think the record really sounds like that." Perhaps not, but the record does have more affinity with the Byrds' slab of country-rock beauty than much of today's music.
While on the subject of other people's records, it's worth mentioning that bands and records, his own and others, seem to be a prominent subject on the album. One song, "One Summer Last Fall," seems to explicitly address the thousands of hearts that fell into Schwarzenbach's hands when they were falling under the spell of Jawbreaker's frayed sentimentality. One line attempts to set the record straight, stating, "Kid, you were wrong/ It wasn't me in that song/You write the lie you'd like to be/ When your life looks like a book you wouldn't read."
Not that Schwarzenbach is above finding salvation in the grooves of albums. "I lived through a record one summer last fall," he says at one point in the song. When pressed for a name he mentions both of Neutral Milk Hotel's albums, On Avery Island and In An Aeroplane Over the Sea, as well as Wilco's 1996 double-disc set, Being There. "I listened to all of those records to the point of wearing them out."
Another song, "Little Light," is a snapshot of life on the road, as a lovesick Schwarzenbach croons, "Now I'm so far from you/I'm naming stars for you/Ship to shore do you read?/S.O.S. J.T.B."
"I was writing a lot about the divide between my life in the band and my personal life. And there really isn't one anymore. So [in writing about my life] there are plenty of mentions of the band."
Thankfully the listener is spared any "Wanted Dead or Alive"-style histrionics, as most of Schwarzenbach's lyrics about band life can be applied to anyone trying to make sense of the world around them. Except perhaps the album's closer, "All Things Good and Nice," a song of praise, giving love to most of the significant characters in Schwarzenbach's life, from his mother to his bassist, as one line praises Chatelain, "I love my bassist/Represent the Western states/I think they sent me an angel from the old salt lake."
Shout-outs on a Jets to Brazil record?
"I had to give my band some love," Schwarzenbach says, laughing. "I wanted a song where I could introduce them. We've been playing that at the end of the set, and I give them shout-outs. I've always wanted to do that."
Fans can catch Schwarzenbach throwing out love from stages across America this fall, but they better not "just wait until they come through next time," if they want to see them. According to Schwarzenbach, there's no multiple blitzing of the country planned: "I just want it to be fun, and that's going to mean easing off a bit on how long we go out for at a time."
Almost as interesting as seeing how Jets will translate the recorded arrangements of Four Cornered Night to the stage will be the reaction this record and tour get from some of their fans. A recent show in Boston saw a lot of confused, younger faces as the band glided through piano-led ballads.
"We'll see," Schwarzenbach says hesitantly. "That was a little weird. It felt like we were backing music there."
Situated as the elder statesmen of sorts on the popular Jade Tree label (home to The Promise Ring and Joan of Arc, among others), and touring for a record that might remind a lot of their fans of music their parents listen to, Jets to Brazil have quite a campaign on their hands. Schwarzenbach doesn't mind being the underdog though. He welcomes it, even.
"It's healthier off to the side a little bit," he concludes. "I support all the groups on Jade Tree, and there are plenty of bands that I believe in, but there's something about where we are. Being a band from New York, it makes it more desperate. But I like that."
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