Burning Airlines singer/guitarist J. Robbins has worn a lot of different hats during his career as a keystone in the Washington, D.C., underground music scene: He was a cog in the machinery of rioteers Government Issue, frontman for the lauded Jawbox, the producer/engineer of a staggering number of albums and, now, the driving force behind Burning Airlines, one of the city's premier indie acts. It's probably an understatement to say Robbins is a flexible fella. That flexibility sure comes in handy sometimes. Identikit, Burning Airlines' second full-length album, is the most stylistically sweeping recording Robbins has ever issued.
Burning Airlines still exhibits the cool, collected passion that marked Jawbox's reign as the poster kids of post-hardcore punk; Identikit abounds in angular, piercing guitars and creeping low-end melodies. Mike Harbin's bass lines burst with distorted, understated anger ("The Deluxe War Baby") while the guitar parts are often fiendishly minimalist ("A Lexicon"). Robbins unleashes a youthful, punk-rock rage with searing condemnations of political machinations ("Election-Night Special") and unrepentantly aggressive guitars ("Paper Crowns").
But while Burning Airlines' sporadic revisitation of Robbins's former styles is interesting, it's certainly not essential. It's the new elements that Robbins and company yank into the mix, seemingly from nowhere, that make this record. A newfound respect for pop is evidenced in sing-along vocals like "Outside the Aviary," while quiet numbers like "Dear Hilary" mate acoustic pop with confessional themes. Burning Airlines (which appears at the Ogden Theatre on Saturday, September 22, with Rival Schools and Contender) also subtly introduces electronic elements into its music, with space-rock synthesizers ("Tastykake") and ambient background noise that holds up a stripped-down acoustic number ("Earthbound").
Rather then letting himself get painted into one genre or another, Robbins demonstrates that he won't allow Burning Airlines to be wholly tied to any one sound, or to his own past. Free from the constraints that previously held him back -- even Jawbox's 1999 release Mission: Control! was largely overshadowed by artistic and personnel conflicts with his bandmates, ties that have since been severed -- Robbins lets loose with the most fertile songwriting of his formidable career.
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