Some of the lyrics to “Over Underground”, the lead track on After the Earthquake which first appeared this past summer on a split seven-inch single with Dikembe, have a way of reading like an abstract mission statement. Over exactly three of the most straight forward minutes the Jazz June have ever put to tape, vocalist/guitarist Andrew Low seems to be going back over the old plans and what became of them (“Things went wrong / We went south / We went over underground”) before bringing everyone up to speed with their decision to give it another go: “Go on, man / And just shake it off / And just deal with it / This is life / There are consequences”. The squally, riff-driven rush of “Over Underground” comes on like After the Earthquake’s own “Hyper Enough”; it’s a game changing, tone setting re-introduction.
The Jazz June’s first new album in a dozen years is one of the most surprising developments so far in the unlikely and unpredictable second life of second-generation emocore. Even when guitarist Bryan Gassler took his turn on Tom Mullen’s Washed Up Emo podcast in January of 2013, it didn’t sound like the band were on the cusp of full-scale reunification. While the revival snowballs, looking back to the start, it’s hard to spot obvious clues that such plot twists were coming. Perhaps when San Francisco post-hardcore pioneers Portraits of Past got together for a handful of reunion shows and a new EP in late 2008-2009, everyone should have taken note: here and gone in a flash yet again, Portraits of Past were ahead of the curve now just as they were back in the day. A few others had popped up for at least a one-off revival before, but, starting in 2009, one ‘90s emo legend after another could be found traversing the country on tour or at least playing a couple of scattered dates.
Even so, not many of them were concerned with generating new material, and mixed results came to those few who tried. The promise of the first new Sunny Day Real Estate album in a decade gradually folded into the gravity of their enigmatic (Enigk-matic, perhaps?) lore, leaving us with only “Lipton Witch”, their Record Store Day 2014 single, and scattered YouTube videos of “Song 10” taken from their 2009 tour, to give a glimpse of how genuinely exciting a new album could have been. The eternally hyperactive Braid have had a more successful time of it. Though the melodic mid-tempo turns of their 2011 Closer to Closed EP didn’t quite demand the attention it could have, this year’s No Coast was the kind of comeback that most bands could only hope to deliver. That’s Braid for you, though: years later, they are practically ageless.
Well, so is the Jazz June, it turns out. However, After the Earthquake might be a kind of return to form, but it isn’t a return to their old sound. Those nostalgic for early archetypal emo fan-favorites like “When in Rome” or “The Teenage Fight Song” may be somewhat perplexed at first by the lack of stop-start time changes and economical songwriting (nine of the album’s ten tracks clock in at three minutes or less). The differences don’t stop there.
On the band’s early recordings, Low’s vocals had a way of sometimes evoking the off-kilter quiver of Davey von Bohlen from the Promise Ring. This trait lessened with each subsequent album, and, now, on After the Earthquake Low’s voice has taken a leap away from any kind of self-obscuring, putting clarity of enunciation and emotion on equal footing. Gassler’s guitar work, less tricky but not simple, reflects this newfound directness, and bassist Dan O’Neill and drummer Justin Max follow suit. Tying it all together is the well-balanced physicality brought by producer Evan Weiss (Into It. Over It.), who seems to be something of Topshelf’s own Todd Rundgren these days.
Maybe it’s because Gassler has been living in North Carolina for a while, but the immediate hooks that pogo across the album, from “It Came Back” to “Ain’t it Strange”, could have come straight from Chapel Hill’s heyday. Not to belabor the point, but this was not the direction the Jazz June were once heading. Partially victims of timing, they released what has generally come to be regarded as their most accomplished album, The Medicine, in 2000, at a point when so many of their major peers had either broken up or changed tack. Two years later, when they could have tried to ride the big third-generation wave, they released the challenging, exploratory Better Off Without Air. In fact, it’s hard to shake the notion that if the Jazz June had only come out with After the Earthquake back then instead, they might have been swept up along with the commercial success of Bleed American, and today we could all be fondly griping about the old days when “Stuck on Repeat” was in fact stuck on repeat on MTV2.
Such is the unique position of After the Earthquake; it can ask as many “what if” questions as it answers. The payday isn’t exactly on par with that of the Pixies. The guys still have the chops, but they don’t sound overly concerned with proving it. If this fourth wave of emo continues for some time, who knows, maybe they’ll finally get their full due. These ten undeniable songs would certainly be the late breakthrough in their body of work to get them there. But they don’t sound worried about that, either. Genuinely energized by the tangible presence and appreciation of their fans, and aided by the ability to record together across distances (both happy byproducts of modern technology), the Jazz June sound both more focused and liberated than ever before. Ethel Meserve, the ball is in your court.