By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
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By Emerald O'Brien
"Plus," he adds with a laugh, "none of the groups we played in were exactly blockbuster groups."
This last point is debatable. Though Schwarzenbach's previous outfit, San Francisco's Jawbreaker, didn't exactly dominate the Billboard charts during its six-year tenure, its cerebral, melodic punk songs attracted a prodigious underground cult and inspired an entire generation of young, passionate acts, among them the Promise Ring, Gaunt and Denver's own Acrobat Down. Schwarzenbach's mates, bassist Jeremy Chatelain, drummer Chris Daly and fresh guitar recruit Brian Maryansky, also had brief flirtations with modern-rock stardom: Prior to joining the Jets, Chatelain was vocalist for the New York act Handsome, Daly played skins for Texas Is the Reason, and Maryansky hails from Van Pelt. Yet you'd be hard-pressed to find the residue from these associations on Orange Rhyming Dictionary, the four-piece's new LP on Delaware's Jade Tree imprint. Indeed, the album's diverse, radiant tracks and sweeping, sometimes moody arrangements have more in common with the Gang of Four and Magazine than they do with HYsker DY or Sunny Day Real Estate.
The recording opens with "Crown of the Valley," a chugging, neo-metal shaker, before proceeding into a panoply of jagged art rock ("Morning New Disease"), new-wave grooves ("Resistance Is Futile") and stirring acoustic ballads ("Sweet Avenue"). As a result, Orange has proven to be a bitter pill to swallow for many Jawbreaker boosters, who are more accustomed to Schwarzenbach's brilliant punk-pop offerings. "Crown of the Valley," in particular, rubs them the wrong way, the singer admits. "That song is very rock," he says, barely containing his enthusiasm. "So we caught a lot of flak for that one. It seemed like a lot of kids really hated that song initially. I think they thought it was too swaggering or too catchy. But that was one of our favorite songs when we wrote it. We were so psyched to be able to play in that style. It's pretty decadent and dirty, and it felt really good. We were into it."
Schwarzenbach, who pens a lion's share of the Jets' material, attributes much of his bold new songwriting style to his new environs. Shortly after parting ways with Jawbreaker, he moved to New York City, in part because of the strong link between his old group and San Francisco. "I really felt like I failed that city," he says. "And I felt that the city had failed me. Having been a member of that band for so long and then going through a really protracted breakup, I felt shamed out of town. We did really well, but I think after it was over--and this sounds really vain--I didn't want to spend the rest of my life being seen as 'that guy from Jawbreaker.'"
Of course, it didn't help that the band was dropped by Geffen Records shortly after releasing Dear You, its first offering on a major label. Although a stellar addition to the group's already impressive catalogue, You was lost in the typhoon of releases that followed the great post-Nirvana feeding frenzy and has since disappeared entirely from music-store shelves. To this day, it is Jawbreaker's rarest record, selling on the Internet for up to $40 a pop. Yet despite the band's short-lived career on Geffen, Schwarzenbach was generally pleased by the experience. "It was actually pretty fun," he says. "At the time, I think the whole punk-rock community wanted me to say the whole thing was pretty horrible. They wanted me to give some sort of contrition speech or something. But they treated us really well. They hooked us up with a huge contract, and they never told us what to do. They just basically gave us a lot of money to do what we wanted. I'm not complaining."
Subsequent episodes with Jawbreaker were so unpleasant, however, that Schwarzenbach actually turned his back on music for a time and concentrated on a freelance writing career. But his interest was rekindled after bumping into longtime acquaintance Chatelain, who was nursing wounds resulting from the disbandment of Handsome. Together the two started composing songs in Schwarzenbach's studio, using a drum machine to keep time. "I found I had a real chemistry with Jeremy," Schwarzenbach says. "I had never really played with anybody else other than Jawbreaker. It was a cool thing for me, because Jeremy is very musical. He comes from a totally different background than I do, so he brought a lot to the drawing board."