Blake Schwarzenbach carries a heavy weight on his shoulders. With Orange Rhyming Dictionary, the former singer and guitarist for San Francisco's punk-pop Jawbreaker makes his return to the indie-rock realm, and also tries to make peace with his previous band's breakup. Schwarzenbach is hesitant to abandon his old melodic sensibilities with Jets to Brazil, but he also tries to avoid the pressure to repeat Jawbreaker's infectious, distorted urgency.
Much of his need to change -- and yet stay the same -- springs from his recent history. Through most of the '90s, Jawbreaker were indie darlings loved for their headstrong resistance to the mainstream music industry, so their signing to DGC brought venomous criticism from fans unwilling to share the trio's penchant for melody encased in gritty song structures. So as MTV and radio ignored 1995's Dear You and the group folded, Schwarzenbach moved to New York City to purge himself. In forming Jets to Brazil, he's aligned himself with a pair of melodic-punk compatriots: Chris Daly, former drummer of Texas Is the Reason, and Jeremy Chatelain, bassist and vocalist in Handsome.
Using sparse arrangements and thin vocal harmonies to replace Schwarzenbach's trademark gritty vocal wheeze, Dictionary displays the singer's reluctance to revisit his former role of coaxing angst from a wall of distorted guitars. The opening "Crown of the Valley" employs Britfunk wah-wah pedal guitar and dance rhythms, as the chorus alternates between groaning, detuned guitar-string bends and jangling chords. With the bass and drums slithering underneath, Schwarzenbach's guitar rings out to punctuate a telling lyric: "Stop tearing off the roof/ Of my experimental bathroom/ It's the only thing that's halfway mine/ And not for your prying and lying eyes." Elsewhere, "Resistance Is Futile" uses a robotic synthesizer line cloned from the Gary Numan songbook, as Chatelain's chiming '70s-rock vocal harmonies highlight its dour chorus.
Most indicative of Jets to Brazil's departure from pop-punk formula are the stripped-down "Sea Anemone" and "Sweet Avenue," which exchange syrupy layers of buzzing guitars for blithely strummed single notes. Easing the throttle on his vocal chords, Schwarzenbach's rasp now resembles the ragged croon of the Psychedelic Furs' Richard Butler. He's trying to remain true to himself while exploring different arteries of the pop-rock corpus, which makes Orange Rhyming Dictionary something of a triumph. However, by sidestepping Jawbreaker's patented growl, Jets to Brazil have also mired themselves in a murk of predictable simplicity. They've stripped the punk from their pop, but neglected to fill its absence with a melody of merit.
-- Dave Clifford
Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach
Painted From Memory
There's a scene in a Bugs Bunny cartoon in which a prosperous Elmer Fudd walks past a park bench filled with the loafing, groveling caricatures of Bing Crosby, Eddie Cantor, and Al Jolson. At the end of the bench, Fudd spies our hero and exclaims: "Bugs Bunny! What are you doing hanging around with these bums? They'll never amount to anything!"
Elvis Costello fans might be equally indignant about Painted From Memory, his collaboration with Burt Bacharach that has Angie Dickinson and the rest of the Riunite-on-ice swinger set all a-twitter. Elvis! What are you doing hanging around with that bum? He'll never amount to anything!
Across 20 years, Costello's biggest talent has been taking pop music and stretching it in every direction. He's packed his songs with an uncommon intelligence and the kinds of passions -- bitterness, vanity, and political outrage, to name three of his favorites -- that pop music never dealt with before Bob Dylan, and has rarely troubled with since. So why team with Bacharach, a composer whose cloying melodies have insinuated themselves into our collective consciousness like root rot? Worse still, the biggest weakness of Memory's songs is their lack of the catchy, commercial-jingle hooks that Bacharach's famous for. The symphonic melodies don't stick and only serve to recall "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," burning that song into the listener's brain like a satanic mantra.
What is salvageable on Painted From Memory amounts to one lovely track, "God Give Me Strength," already available on the soundtrack to Grace of My Heart. It's true that Costello's voice, once a pinched, nasty little whine, has matured into a formidable instrument of power and persuasion. His always-gorgeous vibrato has been made even more effective by an expanded vocal range, while a more confident singing style takes Elvis into areas of emotional vulnerability that the angry young Britpunk would never have attempted. But it's not a voice that plays well against fluegelhorn, syrupy strings, cheesy "Say a Little Prayer" background vocals, or any of the other gruesomely baroque touches that Bacharach provides.
If Costello's going to insist on collaborating, he might try hooking up with someone like Lou Reed or Paul Westerberg, punk orphans who've struggled mightily to use the limitations of rock music to approach adult themes, but who've also stayed faithful to the form. Now that's what friends are for.
-- Brian Alcorn