The Jazz June
After The Earthquake
by Chad Jewett
During their initial, turn-of-the-millenium run, The Jazz June made albums rife with nervous energy. On records like the taut, coiled Better Off Without Air, the Pennsylvania post-hardcore quartet seemed to be delivering their dexterous art punk with baited breath, so tangible was the tension of songs like “Drugs and Models” and “We’ve Got Your Situation”. Even the more brightly melodic The Medicine had its share of sharp edges, seeming to find great energy in the bracing clash of pop-punk and sinewy hardcore. With all of that in mind, there’s more than a little surprise to find the band now making music that feels so airy and casually tuneful, so roomy and affable where Better Off typified the gripping anxieties and frayed nerves of post-9/11 American culture. After The Earthquake, The Jazz June’s second-act full-length (via Topshelf Records) seems to sigh away all the built up steam of those earlier albums, un-knoting all that was so tirelessly threaded. Where past Jazz June full-lengths have felt like pointillist designs of precise dots and proportions, After The Earthquake is embracingly open (produced with characteristic crispness by Into It. Over It. leader Evan Weiss), almost free-form in its partly-cloudy, warm aesthetic, a humid counterpart to the chilliness of Better Off Without Air. Like generational peers Braid, who similarly returned from a hiatus this year with an album of exceedingly amiable, lighthearted pensiveness, The Jazz June have extended their legacy by seemingly letting it float away in the breeze.
After The Earthquake begins with “Over Underground”, a re-recorded version of a song that initially appeared as part of a split with Dikembe. The new version arrives conspicuously improved, sharpening the band’s newfound power-pop motion by giving the song’s strident riff room to stretch, and by subbing in a brighter, more committed vocal from Andrew Low that replaces the hazy, effects-heavy take found in Version A. Low reaches for the top of his register (especially in the song’s skyscraping chorus) and in so doing offers a nice contrast between his sharp melody and the song’s pleasantly impressionist wash of guitars. The song remains a nice synecdoche for the ways in which The Jazz June have evolved, from the sidewinding churn of past albums to the jubilant forward-motion of “Over Underground” and its affable optimism: “Go on man / Well, just shake it off / And just deal with it / This is life, there are consequences”.
After The Earthquake excels when it captures that initial buoyancy, especially whenever the strum-heavy gait of “Over Underground” is further crisped with alt-country inflections. “Edge of Space”, the album’s high-point and one of the best songs of the year, marries a rich, broad acoustic guitar to spectral slide echoes and Andrew Low’s new-found twang, all to moving effect. When that high-prairie melody is suddenly pressed into motion by a mechanical, churning beat, the effect is like Beachwood Sparks set atop a late-era Lungfish beat, a new direction for the genre experimentation of Better Off Without Air (which, for its part, also occasionally gestured toward folk and country textures). A beautiful harmony surfaces here and there; guitars saw at angles along what is otherwise an aerodynamic folk song. The whole thing adds up to a brilliant passage from a band whose expectations for themselves now seem to begin and end at writing sturdy, moving songs, and letting their already-proven gifts for detail shade in the margins. The sparkling, bucolic register of “Edge of Space” is welcome whenever it comes back around throughout After The Earthquake, showing up again on the fleet “It Came Back” and the practically honky-tonk “Two Floors Down” a loping closer that mainly recalls Whiskeytown except when its pierced by the gnarled riffs of Domestica-era Cursive.
“Ain’t It Strange” is similarly thrilling for its seeming effortlessness, an ultra-efficient three-chord pop song that works in the kind of vaguely off-kilter melodicism that keeps The Pixies’ Doolittle evergreen. Breaks between verses are etched with wobbly strands of guitar – think the bending mini-riffs of Modest Mouse or Built To Spill – and the song’s main melody (the album’s finest) is gorgeously backlit by harmonies from Alanna McArdle of Joanna Gruesome. As is the case with the lion’s share of After The Earthquake, “Ain’t It Strange” is captivating for its deft grip on the A-B-C’s of a working pop song, the smooth and effortless way its melody and its structure and its progressions seem to ease from piece to piece, deceptively simple and compulsively listenable. Again, it’s funny to see a band like The Jazz June, once so committed to a baroquely dense post-hardcore algebra, now clearing its table for instinctively bright indie rock.
The album only loses that momentum when the band lets its knack for subtlety override its newfound yen for energy. “After The Earthquake” features a great chorus, but the song’s verses feel like placeholders, especially given the fish-nor-fowl dissonance of a progression that doesn’t scan as exactly major or minor, and ultimately ends up feeling aimless. Elsewhere, “Stuck On Repeat” loses purchase for similar reasons – a very good chorus contending with verses that are just sort of there, idling atop a rolling snare until the next hook can make its way back around.
Yet the album succeeds – brilliantly so – at a high rate, and its tent-pole songs – “Over Underground”, “Edge of Space”, “Ain’t It Strange”, “Short Changed” — are plainly great, the sort of tuneful, grabbing numbers that are frequently the hardest to write because they’re the easiest to enjoy and the most rewarding to revisit. Indeed, that might just be the real triumph of After The Earthquake: that a band like The Jazz June, whose previous gift was for sharp, wiry grooves and an avant-garde approach to punk music, have maintained their knack for texture and detail while writing one of the best pop records of the year.