Washington D.C. Punk Rock: That Was Then, This is Now!

[16 November 2011]

By David Ensminger

Steadfast, sincere, and experimental seem to be J. Robbins’ operating modes since he played throbbing bass for godfathers of punk Government Issue during the last half-decade of the band’s lauded career, in the heyday of the 1980s Washington D.C. scene. By the end of the decade he morphed into an inventive, angular, and jazz-inflected guitarist and clean-voiced, freewheeling singer-poet for Jawbox. Then, as the 1990s rolled towards the millennium, he steered all-things-cool for Burning Airlines too.

Jawbox, who re-united in 2009 for a Jimmy Fallon appearance, tilted towards tightly wound, stylized, even abstract sound structures that left listeners both enthralled and vexed. Delivering songs in slippery phrasing, they were wary of power crunch cliches delivered without irony. Thankfully, unlike math rockers aplenty, Jawbox never became too obtuse, and the band carefully chose irreverent covers to show off the crafty heart on its sleeve.

Between its well-honed, seminal albums For Your Own Special Heart (Atlantic, 1994) and Jawbox (Atlantic, 1996), Robbins charged ahead by writing lyrics felt like Bob Dylan’s leftover notes from Tarantula and delved into covers of Joy Division, Big Boys, and the Avengers. Burning Airlines continued the same trajectory, but they flirted with a sound reminiscent of early, oddball Anglo-popsters XTC, which Robbins again channels on new songs, including “Your Several Selves” performed by his recently unveiled outfit, Office of Future Plans, which has just released a self-titled album on Dischord.

Incessantly authentic, Robbins has always put integrity above profit while making albums that sound like cascading roars one minute and carefully nuanced and percolating tone poems the next minute. Lately, after taking a break to concentrate on family matters and mind his career as go-to producer and engineer for Against Me!, Paint it Black, Dismemberment Plan, and innumerable others, Robbins has joined forces with the drummer of Kerosene 454 to produce an album of startling adult clarity, nimble musical caresses, and when he wants to, explosive fireball rock ’n’ roll.

Distinctive cuts on Office of Future Plans include “Fema Coffins”, which targets the current malaise of America in precise lines like, “Hello, Crypto-Fascists! / Hello, Wailing 1%! / I love you more the crazier you get”.  If there was ever a current song that balanced wry wordplay poetics with a tough eye on Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party crusades, and the Republican primary media circus, this is it, full-bore and frenetic.

Sure, they also yield big guitar music on the thumper “The Loyal Opposition”, which does not surrender trademark funky and ferocious drumming either.  Yet, they roll out minimal electronica too, like the Brian Eno-esque “Riddle Me Down”, which is balanced with the supple and satisfying melodic balladry found on “Abandon”.  “The Beautiful Barricades”, meanwhile, attempts to witness the revolutions still at play around the globe, replete with their upgraded monsters and bullets ricocheting from 1961. It churns and roils, offering percussive playfulness in places, like a lullaby gone wrong. The tune becomes both a cultural thermometer and a warning, a social metaphor and a strident mantra.

As a kind of post-punk savior, Robbins proves that music is still a wishing well, ready for the metaphoric kill of all things mundane and meathead. Plus, he dedicates the album to engineer Ian Burgess, who almost single-handedly created the “Chicago sound” of the 1980s. The tweaked the knobs behind the sonic sizzle of Naked Raygun, Big Black, and the Effigies, creating his titanic aural signature.

This is the Robbins we know. Attentive to heritage, attentive to history, he lingers inside the terrain of modern music as a singular, but still under-the-radar, figure. Office of Future Plans may not yield ready-made stompers, but their bites and bellows, visions and vitriol, although shot across the bow of measured adulthood, feel painstakingly pertinent.

In other Government Issue related news, Dr. Strange Records, which has spent the last decade re-releasing the band’s entire catalog, has just made its eponymous fourth album available for the first time in 20 years. Offering a handful of extra tracks, plus the crisply re-mastered original album at the hands of guitarist Tom Lyle, this seminal record is a ready steady document of the power and glory of the band right before J. Robbins joined.

Already having shed its thrash-bash past, the restless band attempted a methodical conceptual leap into harrowing rock ’n’ roll. Government Issue somehow cull the Eastern mystique dabbling of the acid-drenched Rolling Stones (yes, a sitar creates a resonant sonic tapestry in places), dollop it with a wall-of-sound reminiscent of the Who live at Leeds, mix in a bit of roots rock panache ( “Locked Inside” could be a heavy, murky Son Volt song), and package it all with acerbic East Coast punk attitude. Lyle’s guitar sounds mammoth and cavernous. In turn, irascible and immutable singer John Stabb howls almost as distinctly as John Doe of X (or as Tom Lyle confers in the liner notes, Jack Grisham of TSOL) on key tunes like “It Begins Now” and the bonus track “When I’m Alone”, from Mystic Studios sessions.


Not to be missed, this crucial document underscores the band’s impressive hybridity and indelible mastery of music that challenged America’s notion of punk as some kind of amateur hour. Government Issue blew that myth out of the water, and they still had two more albums waiting to bloom with J. Robbins on the bass throne.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/151329-washington-d.c.-punk-rock-that-was-then-this-is-now/