For Jawbreaker Day: The Best Jawbreaker Songs

I remember when emo broke to the  high school kids in my town (thanks, Jimmy Eat World) and everyone quickly began drawing lines in the sand regarding which bands fell into this often maligned, frequently misunderstood category. I was one of them, diving deeper and deeper through All Music, trying to figure out where this sound came from and where it fit between hardcore, punk, post-hardcore, and everything else. Like everyone else, I wound up in Washington D.C. reading about Dischord Records and Revolution Summer, but it was San Francisco’s Jawbreaker that caught my eye. A badass name, a perfectly tortured album title (it doesn’t get much better than 24 Hour Revenge Therapy to a 15 year old male) , and, most importantly, an iffy cover by Brand New were all I needed to check out a band. Years later, it would seem my shithead 15 year old self didn’t mess everything up.

Singer and guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach took the fledgling confessional lyrical style in punk and gave it more structure, painting in quiet details that begat themselves over repeated listens. These details were what made them so endearing, gradually earning them unwavering loyalty from the Bay Area punk scene (before they “sold out,” which was still an actual concern at the time). Alternating between hilarious (“Bad Scene, Everyone’s Fault”) and gut wrenching (take your pick), they were the spearhead attached to rhythms that moved from airtight punk, spacious grunge takes, and pogo stick worthy pop-punk.

kurt-cobain-jawbreaker-shirt

Having Kurt Cobain wear your band’s shirt doesn’t hurt either.

They’ve been discussed to death everywhere else so I’ll cut to the tunes. Here are a few of my favorites (in no particular order) along  with some words and lyric snippets. Kiss the bottle and share with your Jawbreaker buddies.

1. Sluttering (May 4th)

The namesake of Jawbreaker Day, this one just may burn the brighest on Dear You, Jawbreaker’s final album and “controversial” major label debut (a classic sell out story that pissed off everyone that their previous record didn’t). Supposedly about two ex-girlfriends becoming friends with one another, a phenomena I’ve yet to experience, there is enough bitterness here for two.

A bobbing bassline, piles of guitar tracks, and one of Jawbreaker’s biggest choruses made this is solid contender for the third Dear You single that never came.

2. Indictment

A hint of what was to come on the next track, “Boxcar,” “Indictment” is a giant middle finger to the punk scene, its police, and its legislators. Distilled, it’s an argument for pop structure, melody, and thinking twice about people’s allegiances. Being a non-musician, post-white collar square, I’ve always digested it as an anthem for drinking beer,  putting friends first, and peeing in sinks. You can’t hold me down!

“I just wrote the dumbest song. It’s gonna be a sing along. All our friends will clap and sing. Our enemies will laugh and be pointing. It won’t bother me, what the thoughtless are thinking. I am more concerned with what we’re drinking.”

3. Chesterfield King

The quintessential “aw shucks” love song stinking of cigarette smoke: boy meets girl, boy doesn’t know what to say, boy drinks a beer and receives sage advice from an old woman, boy professes love for wanting girl, boy encourages her to smoke his brand of cigarettes and unwittingly pushes her closer to her death, as all relationships do.

4. Want

I wasn’t going to include this one and then I listened to it again and suddenly that three chord progression swept me up and a first love head rush grabbed control of my fingers. On the first track of their first album, Jawbreaker nailed the silent love song. A schoolboy crush set to 200 beats per minute.

5. Kiss the Bottle

Initially released in 1992 on Mission Merchant’s The Mission District: 17 Reasons compilation, then on Allied Recording’s Music for the Proletariat compilation, and finally re-released on Jawbreaker’s Etc. compilation, “Kiss the Bottle” was the last song Jawbreaker recorded before Schwarzenbach underwent surgery to address polyps on his throat. This terrible circumstance gives a remarkable urgency to their already raw sound, leaving the listener to bet if his voice will up and leave mid song. Thankfully it sticks around enough for a half decent take.

I’ll let Schwarzenbach color it in. From the Etc. liner notes:

“Probably the geographically truest song in our canon. Inspired by a liquor store down on Mission where the junkies would buy five-cent candies with dollar food stamps and use the change for their darker pursuits. A kind of tacit, don’t-look-don’t tell agreement  between the avuncular Eastern proprietors and their lean, bread-and-butter clientele. Plus, I was down there a lot with my girlfriend, then she wasn’t my girlfriend anymore, so that became part of the story.”

6. Sea Foam Green

Guitars alternate between palm muted and howling as Schwarzenbach details driving cross-country in a ’63 Plymouth Valiant, chewing on amphetamine tablets along the way, to eventually meet up with some babe. I don’t think things worked out, but this sits at the top of the list of songs that should have made it onto 24 Hour, instead only getting released on the Punk USA compilation before getting rounded up on Etc.. 

“I tried to drink you off my mind. I just got wasted. It only made the pain that much more acute. But cute isn’t strong enough a word. Unintentionally gorgeous, an accidental charm, a graceful drinking arm, disarming…”

7. Ache

This tune is to break up songs what the 23 year old Pappy Van Winkle is to bourbon. Both are robust, challenging, and intimate from start to finish. At least the song is, my salary or stature don’t really grant me access into the auctions where that sort of whiskey trades hands. The song moves from the loneliness of absence, through to acceptance, and, instead of triumphing and embracing living alone, dives into a sort of humiliating surrender. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I think we’ve all been there at least once.

“So right, so wrong, another winter’s coming on. You win, you lose, it’s the same old news. Pick up the phone and punch your home code. Somewhere, sometime let me make you mine.”

8. Boxcar

Punk’s update on Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street,” “Boxcar” takes aim at scene elitists that became increasingly exclusive in a community that once prided itself on its incusivity (…and the world turns). I’m pretty sure I saw this recommended to me in Alternative Press a few times and it’s generally considered the essential Jawbreaker song. Though the pettiness of scene politics is a bit esoteric, the transformation of friends into strange enemies is a metamorphosis most have witnessed.

9. West Bay Invitational

As opposed to the typical house show scenario involving cops, douche bag guests, and awful bands, “West Bay Invitational” captures one of those remarkable evenings when everything just goes right. The neighbors bought in, the people that came out were involved in all the right bands and labels, and the protagonist hooks up with a chick that digs whiskey. If only they could all go this way.

“Our kitchen was crowded and steamy. Isn’t it always? I just looked deeper into you. You bit my neck blue. We hung our clothes up on the floor and put our faith in a closed door.”

10. Do You Still Hate Me?

It’s taken several years and several relationships to realize the dark laughter this title warrants. You can indeed become so close with someone that it gets taken for granted and over time you can’t even figure out if you’re on good terms, speaking terms, or no terms at all. I’m pretty sure it was Set Your Goals’ Reset EP  that introduced me to this one (listen) and it’s…not that great, but that’s not what matters here.

11. Chemistry

Everyone knows high school sucks but I don’t think anyone captured that feeling quite like Jawbreaker did on “Chemistry” (Social Distortion aside). The song’s protagonist is suffering from a pretty heavy bout of Holden Caufield Syndrome: thinks class is pointless, alienates himself as a defense mechanism, and is disillusioned by the prospect of the future. On top of all that, the only girl he likes is dating some cooler, older guy with a motorcycle. It’s a tad ridiculous, but so is high school.

Happy Jawbreaker Day, everyone.

  • Allen Pinkerton

    I used to sit and listen to Ache over and over and over. There’s just something comforting about it you can’t find in other “emo” artists of the time. I don’t particularly feel bad when I listen to it. It goes with rain. It’s just a blanket of a good song.