Keeping Track: 20 Essential Jade Tree Records Releases
by Chad Jewett
For a good span of the 90s and early 2000s, fans of indie rock, emo, punk, and post-hardcore could set their watch by Jade Tree Records. The limited economy of afterschool grocery store jobs and summer paper routes had to be committed wisely, and Jade Tree’s distinctive logo – a wood-cut icon of the titular tree and the label’s name in block font – was more or less the punk rock version of a seal of approval. Like Vagrant and Polyvinyl Records, you could count on Jade Tree’s wholly diverse yet somehow signature discography of melodic punk, expansive hardcore, and avant-garde indie. This week, Jade Tree put their incredibly wide-ranging catalog up for streaming at Bandcamp. To celebrate this windfall, and the legacy of one of modern punk and indie’s great labels, here is our list of 20 essential Jade Tree Records releases:
20.) Pedro The Lion Achilles Heel (2004)
Released between the stormy, acerbic Control and the affecting rumination of David Bazan’s first post-Pedro solo album, Curse Your Branches, 2004’s Achilles Heel only sounds like a relatively calm forty minutes of reedy indie pop. In reality the record contains an almost haunting anxiety, obsessed with motion, change, and Old Testament trepidation. In some ways the album foreshadows the difficult soul-searching of Curse (“I Do”, “Discretion”), as well as that album’s spacious, finely-crafted sound. Yet the album’s most memorable track just might be the one that most recalls Control – the trickling slow-core opener “Bands With Managers,” which, like “Magazine” plumbs the cynicism of the indie rock culture industry with remarkable alacrity and deceptive bite.
19.) Turning Point Discography (2000)
As Jade Tree themselves put it: “Turning Point were probably your favorite band’s favorite band at one point.” That was back in 2000, and nowadays it might be more accurate to call Turning Point your favorite band’s favorite band’s favorite band (fellow Jade Tree signees Cap’n Jazz taking the former spot), yet Discography (like similar collections from fellow mid-Atlantic early-90s post-hardcore greats Moss Icon and The Honor Role) does offer a remarkable Rosetta Stone for modern indie, emo, and post-hardcore. The nerve-addled funk of Dismemberment Plan? The controlled chaos of Cap’n Jazz? The angularity of modern hardcore’s more cerebral experimenters? You can find pieces of all of it somewhere on Discography.
18.) Denali The Instinct (2003)
A striking forty minutes of exquisitely produced indie-rock wrapped around the bell-clear high alto of Maura Davis, The Instinct is criminally underrated. Anxious yet tuneful, angular yet wholly melody-rich, the concluding album from the Virginia quartet is beautifully unclassifiable. As composed and catchy as the guitar pop golden age during which it was released, as oblique and sharp as the post-hardcore that defined Jade Tree to that point, Denali’s final album was a tour de force of expansive indie-rock.
17.) Joan of Arc A Portable Model Of (1997)
A Portable Model Of, Joan of Arc’s first full-length, is also its most legible, its most melodic, and its most lovely. Pairing the curling acoustic guitars more readily associated with Tim Kinsella’s brother Mike and his long-running project, Owen, with the abstract noise and off-kilter structures that would come to define Joan of Arc, A Portable Model Of finds the former Cap’n Jazz singer turning post-modernist exploration into beautifully compelling pop music. Case-in-point: “The Hands”, which bounces and sparkles like a vintage Shins song, yet is flecked with odd-ball keyboards and regular left turns into noise and chaos.
16.) Railhed Tarentella (1993)
As the resurgence of emo continues to blossom, its archeology of forgotten greats from the genre’s first and second waves carries on in kind. Hopefully that wave of rediscovery will extend to Railhed, one of Jade Tree’s earliest signings (and one fronted by label co-founder Darren Walters) and a fascinating example of a band pairing hardcore monoliths to college rock melodies way, way before its time. Anticipating Samiam, Lifetime, and even Sunny Day Real Estate (whose landmark Diary would be released almost a whole year after Tarentella), songs like “Incision” and “Lather” pair barbed guitars and agile pop melodies, offering an early glimpse at emo’s second wave in the process.
15.) Cub Country High Uinta High (2002)
Released in 2002, during a renaissance of indie-rock infused alt-country (see also: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Beachwood Sparks, Cold Roses, and The Elected’s Me First), High Uinta High, the debut album from Jets to Brazil bassist Jeremy Chatelain, was a gorgeously bronzed dispatch of weary, bucolic melody set to dusty emo-folk arrangements. Warmly-regarded but never as beloved as the band deserved (a story that would also apply to Chatelain’s day job, Jets to Brazil), listening to Cub Country’s debut album in 2014 is intangibly poignant, a record that was nostalgic from the word “go” a decade back, and has now seemingly faded into its own sepia melodies and charmingly tired front-porch reveries.
14.) Jets to Brazil Orange Rhyming Dictionary (1998)
Arriving as the world’s first reunion with Blake Schwarzenbach after the break-up of the beloved emo-punk trio Jawbreaker, Jets to Brazil’s Orange Rhyming Dictionary had a tough row to hoe. Never as absolute in its emo-core signifiers, never as brittle in its poetry, Jets to Brazil would ask the punk scene to grow with them – and would frequently be rebuffed. But the reward for those who gave Schwarzenbach’s new band a chance was three near-perfect albums, beginning with the acidic guitar pop of Orange Rhyming Dictionary, a fascinating mélange of biting, impressionist narratives and taut, cascading college rock arrangements. If Jets to Brazil were never as quick or caustic as Jawbreaker, it’s nevertheless impossible to imagine passing up something as bright, angular, and effervescent as “Morning New Disease”.
13.) Owls Owls (2001)
More or less Cap’n Jazz 2.0 for a post-Fugazi world, Owls re-assembled the basement-emo band (formed by brothers and post-hardcore godfathers Tim and Mike Kinsella) under a new moniker and with a new focus on abstraction, cerebral rhythmic constructs, and opaque narrative labyrinths. If Analphabetapolothology was the sound of high-school kids getting their music theory textbooks mixed up with their calculus homework, then Owls is the sound of those same young men finding their minds blown by Intro to Philosophy and one too many lectures on abstract expressionism. Yet, as has always been the case no matter how esoteric Tim Kinsella manages to range, Owls’ debut album is also uncannily catchy (after all, as the band puts it “Anyone Can Have A Good Time”), a collection of pop songs shredded into post-modernist confetti.
12.) Jets to Brazil Four Cornered Night (2000)
Something of a liminal work between the sharp-edged Orange Rhyming Dictionary and the magisterial Perfecting Loneliness, 2000’s Four Cornered Night might be Jets to Brazil getting it just right. Deeply melodic, variably punchy or agreeably plush, the album is difficult to tag but easy to love. Indeed, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy fans with a little imagination could have an easy time embracing the serrated bounce of “You’re Having The Time Of My Life” and “Your X-Ray Results Have Come Back From The Doctor And We Think We Know What The Problem Is” (there’s a streak of song-title weirdness running through this record). Elsewhere, the cycling grooves of “One Summer Last Fall” and “Mid-Day Anonymous” manages to boil down American Analog Set and Big Star into a whip-smart stretches of philosophical guitar pop. Finally, there are the ballads, deeply moving numbers like “All Things Good And Nice” and “In The Summer’s When You Really Know” that would foreshadow the even more pensive, touching songs to be found on Jets to Brazil’s final album.
11.) The Promise Ring 30° Everywhere (1996)
Both a thrilling sign of things to come and a minor masterpiece in its own right, The Promise Ring’s debut full-length might tend to be overshadowed by its big brother, Nothing Feels Good, but is entirely worth revisiting. Swing by for the scuffed, churning pop of songs like “Everywhere in Denver” (an early presage of singer/songwriter Davey Von Bohlen’s obsession with American geography) and “Between Pacific Coasts”, stick around for the delicate minimalism of “Picture Postcard,” a song that eschews the thick painterly strums that would define Promise Ring’s aesthetic for a precise landscape of needle-and-thread guitars and open spaces. Indeed, as often as 30° Everywhere seems to presage later triumphs it also displays alternative histories of early ideas to which the band would never quite return. 30° Everywhere might often register as the prototype to a later breakthrough, but few are the albums that manage to sound so whole while also sounding so prescient.
10.) Milemarker Anaesthetic (2001)
A nervy, stylish forty minutes of neon post-punk, Milemarker’s second album for Jade Tree is a beautifully anxious dispatch from an era when indie rock was at its most polychromatic, its most rhythmically creative, its most conceptually expansive. One of Jade Tree’s most adventurous releases, the album helped to stretch expectations for the label, and for the genres associated with it. Built from the guitar shards of post-hardcore and the gloaming synthesizers that were similarly en vogue amongst contemporaries like The Faint and The Anniversary, there is nevertheless nothing that really sounds like Anaesthetic, then or now. There are also few album openers as essential as “Shrink to Fit”, a swirling, taut run of post-apocalyptic disco that quickly summarizes the albums electrifying digital collage of post-hardcore, left-field punk, dance music, and emo.
9.) Joan of Arc How Memory Works (1998)
Already slightly more off-kilter and opaque compared to the soft focus watercolors of A Portable Model Of, How Memory Works, Joan of Arc’s sophomore LP, is also its finest, perhaps due in part to the balance found between spectral emo and cerebral experimentation. Take for instance “This Life Cumulative” which pairs an utterly infectious sing-song melody and a radiant swath of guitar to burbling, free-form keyboard noises and an outro of ponderous studio sounds. That synthesis of pop and progress defines the record and makes it a fascinating example of a singular artist finding ways to make challenging art that also embraces tunefulness and connectivity. Joan of Arc would soon grow more aggressively conceptual as Tim Kinsella’s ideas became more willfully difficult, but as a signpost for possibilities at emo’s far edges, there are few records as inspiring and intoxicating as How Memory Works.
8.) Lifetime Hello Bastards (1995)
As the old cliché, once applied to Velvet Underground, goes: 10,000 people heard Lifetime’s Hello Bastards, and they all formed bands. It just so happens that those bands include Saves The Day, Brand New, and Texas Is The Reason. But Hello Bastards remains a second wave emo favorite not only for its family tree stature but also for the band’s agile sense of tunefulness, its soda-fizz energy, its surprisingly affecting and brainy narratives. While much of the album sounds like the manic pop punk equivalent of junior high school, the best moments of Lifetime’s breakthrough LP are those where the band paces itself with more spacious interludes, such as the airy bridge of “Anchor” or the swooning slow-core minimalism of “I’m Not Calling You” (in which the title is intoned over and over like a bratty mantra). That said, there remains an evergreen glee in the sugar-highs of songs like “I Like You Ok”, calorie dense pop-hardcore whose pleasures are elemental.
7.) These Arms Are Snakes – Oxeneers or the Lion Sleeps When Its Antelope Go Home (2004)
A quintessential example of the arty, sidewinding post-hardcore that was Jade Tree’s initial stock-and-trade, Oxeneers or the Lion Sleeps When Its Antelope Go Home, the debut album from Seattle math punks These Arms Are Snakes is a modern classic and a near-perfect example of fearless punk ingenuity. Synthesizing the barbed tension of Drive Like Jehu, the explosive hardcore of Botch, and the unnerving sing-song melodies of Hot Snakes with widened palettes of synthesizers, computerized bass, and post-bop rhythmic patterns, Oxeneers is the aural equivalent of reverse engineering two decades of expansive, concept-heavy art punk. Songs like “Angela’s Secret,” which sounds like Guy Picciotto preaching over a Suicide/Refused mash-up haven’t lost one iota of their thrilling punch. If anything they’ve only grown more compelling, more easily marveled at as an example of a band hitting their stride right out of the gates.
6.) Pedro the Lion Control (2002)
Perhaps the most bitter, satiric, and quietly angry album of emo’s diverse second wave, Pedro the Lion’s Control is a harrowing dark night of the soul, set to David Bazan’s signature reedy slow-core indie and his languorous pop melodies. Consider this aside from the album-opening “Options”: “”I could never divorce you without a good reason / And though I may never have to, it’s good to have options / But for now I need you.” Yikes. That such sentiments are set to gorgeously placid beds of spangling Telecasters and plush organs only raises the sense of cognitive dissonance that defines the album’s complex interrogation of love, anger, honesty, success, and endeavor. Even better is “Magazine”, one of Bazan’s finest and an absolute masterpiece of tension and construction, quiet verses of electric piano and pitch-perfect melody sliding into a toothy, acerbic hook as thorny and biting (“Wouldn’t you love to be on the cover of a magazine?”) as anything on offer from Jade Tree’s more obviously aggressive post-hardcore signees. Control is kind of album that finds some of its best melodies draped over missives like “Oh my god, what have I done?”; the record is an unsettling but masterful exploration of humanity, for better and worse.
5.) The Promise Ring Very Emergency (1999)
Taking the power-pop leanings of the band’s monumental Nothing Feels Good and giving them a glossier sheen for a punchier set of songs, The Promise Ring’s 1999 album Very Emergency is a gleefully hook-filled album, the sound of a band with seemingly little interest in anything that wasn’t either a chorus or a pre-chorus. Almost as iconic as the highlights of its predecessor, “Happiness Is All The Rage” is a funny, effervescent, playful three minutes of pop-emo, and one that has a little fun at the genre’s dourness, just for good measure. Elsewhere, “Happy Hour” takes the cruise-control strums of Nothing Feels Good and funnels them into an enormous chorus. There is also an increased sense of craft and detail to Very Emergency (note the tinkling xylophone that begins “Arms and Danger” or the swinging Weezer-esque swoons of “Living Around”) that anticipates the more gentle, pensive Wood/Water. While never as lauded as the album it followed (I always find myself wondering whether the difference in album covers has something to do with it), Very Emergency is nevertheless an almost perfect collection of witty, affable guitar pop, the final chapter in the Promise Ring/Jade Tree trilogy.
4.) Jets To Brazil Perfecting Loneliness (2002)
As perfect an orchestral indie-pop album as any other release in a decade full of them (More Adventurous, Lifted, The Life Pursuit, Night Falls Over Kortedala, etc… etc…), Jets To Brazil’s final album, the aptly titled Perfecting Loneliness, proved to be their masterpiece. A twilit collection of ruminations on love (“Cat Heaven”), self-exploration (“Wish List”), and, appropriately enough, “Loneliness.” One even senses, on the album’s title track, Blake Schwarzenbach swinging back at the cynicism and snide apathy of a punk scene that couldn’t be bothered to give Jets to Brazil a chance: “The radio is playing our tune / I love it could you turn it down?”. Elsewhere, the silky emo-pop of “You’re The One I Want” pairs one of the punk legend’s most indelible melodies to a gorgeous swoon of strings and sentiment. Ultimately, the album is defined by a sweet sadness, paired with gorgeous, painterly landscapes of pianos, strings, and brushed snares. Indeed, given the ways in which Schwarzenbach has always been a genius of the economic, moving phrase, it’s entirely fitting that Jets to Brazil’s final album contains two of his finest: “The birds fly south, the summer sets, the lights go out”, and perhaps even more elementally: “What can I do? / I’m in love with you, and it won’t stop.”
3.) Lifetime Jersey’s Best Dancers (1996)
The difference between Jersey’s Best Dancers and Hello Bastards, Lifetime’s first album for Jade Tree, is mainly one of subtle improvements and honed directions. Jersey’s Best Dancers simply benefits from coming along after the New Jersey emo-core quintet had worn in the grooves on their athletic, combustible pop hardcore aesthetic. As such, there’s added velocity to the way in which album-opener “Turnpike Gates” interrupts its found-sound intro with bursting guitars and that familiar galloping churn of drums. It also means that the band’s more spacious, pensive passages – the ones that would really make their mark on the next generation of emo bands – are that much more striking. One finds examples of the shift on songs like “Young, Loud And Scotty” and “Hey Catrine,” tracks that found a new kind of mid-Atlantic Romanticism in slower paces and more expansive constructions – recalling Bivouac as it presaged Through Being Cool. Choosing between the band’s two full-length Jade Tree releases is a coin-toss, but Jersey’s Best Dancers offers an interesting facet in the glimpse it gives us of a young, ambitious hardcore band finding new spaces, moods, and ideas.
2.) Cap’n Jazz Analphabetapolothology (1995)
If Hello Bastards was the Big Bang for the millennial generation of emo bands, then Analphabetapolothology, the double-disc anthology of Midwestern emo trailblazers Cap’n Jazz, is more or less at the center of contemporary emo’s Venn diagram. Founded by brothers Mike and Tim Kinsella, who together would be responsible for an entire generation’s emo “How To” guide through bands like American Football, Owen, Joan of Arc, and The One Up Downstairs (not to mention the band’s later recruiting of Davey Von Bohlen, who would go on to found The Promise Ring), Cap’n Jazz combined a prankish approach to narratives and song structure while also evincing a very serious commitment to cerebral, complex, energized exploration of the far limits of punk, hardcore, indie, jazz, and pop. Some of what Cap’n Jazz created during their afterschool practices and summer tours (the band was in high school for its entire existence) now sounds like Emo 101, especially the twinkling jaggedness of “Little League,” “In the Clear,” and “Puddle Splashers”. But there’s also a whole lot of stuff on Analphabetapolothology that has never really been metabolized by emo, indie-rock, or anyone else, sounding now like fascinating alternate routes. Indeed, brainy oddities like “Bluegrassish” and “Tokyo” are more or less singular – the sound of a quartet of high school kids who looked at chipped-up guitars and drums and saw nothing but possibility.
1.) The Promise Ring Nothing Feels Good (1997)
Nothing Feels Good, the flawless, buoyant sophomore album from Milwaukee emo greats The Promise Ring, is somehow both the definitive emo album and the definitive Jade Tree release. Indeed, for many, seeing the label’s distinctive monochromatic tree logo summons up surrounding images of pop-art color dots and an autumnal amusement park, the goofy kitsch of a midway ride with bear-shaped cars. In some ways, the sheer perfection of Nothing Feels Good, and its status as one of emo’s warmest, most finely crafted records, partly explains the small risk that an entire generation of punk and indie youngsters gladly took each time they came across a new album with the Jade Tree imprint. Nothing Feels Good built that kind of good will. I can still remember the record store where I bought it, and I can still remember each trip afterwards to grab Perfecting Loneliness or Four Cornered Night or Jersey’s Best Dancers. If one wants to think of the excellent discography of Jade Tree as a world, then think of The Promise Ring’s iconic 1997 album as a way in, a welcoming thirty minutes of Technicolor guitar pop and affably goofy narratives that offered an ideal entre for the more difficult, expansive, and challenging works of art that constituted the label’s outer orbits. Ever notice how “Is This Thing On?” starts the way your heart will sometimes skip a beat? Or how “Forget Me” has the quality of light filtered through overhead leaves? Or how the consonance between “Raspberry Rush” and a particularly slow-running stream? How about the instinct for tangibility and the pointillism of emotional sense-memory displayed by “Red and Blue Jeans” and “Pink Chimneys”? Nothing Feels Good is emo’s greatest achievement because if emo is supposed to be shaped to your life, then no album is more finely whittled to those dimensions. And, at least in part, we have Jade Tree to thank for that.