Influential San Francisco punk band’s bracing 1990 debut full-length is remastered and, on digital versions, paired with the 1989 Whack & Blite EP.
San Francisco’s Jawbreaker straddled a pivotal moment when emo was a “core”: halfway between insult and genre, hardcore and pop, underground and mainstream. Their lyrics stressed both punk principles and emotional outpourings. Their music was furious but catchy, with a set of mannerisms that flowed smoothly into indie-rock, pop-punk, and alt-rock: palm-muted power chords laced with bright octaves and harmonics; guitar leads rounding off into whistling feedback; counter-melodic bass lines; and epic breakdowns with arty sampled monologues. They had lofty ideals, but their songs walked around on the streets, sullen and pissed, with fresh scabs and dog-eared volumes of Bukowski in their back pockets.
The phrase “emo-core” itself is a problematic compromise between hardcore and pop– an angst-inducing identity for a young band. Blake Schwarzenbach was 22 when Jawbreaker’s 1990 debut, Unfun, came out, and this was but one of the pressures that drove him. Recriminating tunefully through a shredded throat, he calibrated himself against a punk scene and adult world of coequal injustice. Unfun was Jawbreaker’s punkest record, but he feared it wasn’t punk enough: “Sorry we ain’t hard enough to piss your parents off,” he snipped on “Incomplete”. His fretful intelligence often led him to dispense free psychological evaluations and strawman parables. There are many issues-based songs: “Softcore” is anti-porn, and “Seethruskin” is anti-racism. It gets almost Orwellian: “Don’t think that I ain’t counting all the things you do,” Schwarzenbach bristles in scene-cop mode. (He always loved those sassy “ain’ts.”) To that extent, the record earns its title.
Yet the music itself is irrepressibly fun. Drummer Adam Pfahler was a fucking behemoth, a whiz with galloping toms and breathtakingly long fills. He sounds great on this low-end boosted reissue, which, on CD and download, also includes the formative Whack & Blite EP. And Schwarzenbach’s prickliness was ultimately sympathetic, because it stemmed from a vulnerability he laid bare in songs like “Want”, where dark secrets are exorcised in the name of love. “So now you know where I come from,” he sings, underlining it twice for emphasis: “My secret’s come undone/ My heart reveals my cause.” The world is fallen, but he’s not dancing on the wreckage. He’s looking for survivors, imploring on “Busy”, “We’re all close to the end; don’t you need a friend?/ Honor your allegiances!”
By 1995’s major-label but still-fierce swan song, Dear You, Jawbreaker seemed wholly out of step with the scene that revered them; a broken lineage made painfully clear by the terrible cover versions modern emo bands produce. Schwarzenbach managed one pretty great album with Jets to Brazil, Orange Rhyming Dictionary, before petering out into mojo-less soft rock. With reunion and documentary rumors rumbling, Jawbreaker is primed for renewed attention, though one wonders what emo fans raised on Dashboard Confessional, Warped Tour, and Vagrant Records will make of their pinched, petulant sound. Regardless, the original music stands tall. On Unfun, Jawbreaker’s conviction that punk could open up to pop while staying hardcore burns more urgently than ever, in the retrospective light of futility.