Truly stunning opening tracks are hard to come by. Even more rare are ones whose first line is just flat-out perfect, both framing the entire album to follow and acting as a clarion call to arms. And if the song that follows that blistering opening line can get in and out in under two minutes, so much the better.
Stream “Outside the Aviary” below:
“Now, clarity lost out to desire,” bellows Burning Airlines’ J. Robbins, beginning both “Outside the Aviary” and Identkit with a, paradoxically, succinct and messy explosion. That “now” sounds in a vacuum, just before Robbins’ guitar rips in, and there’s something about its all-hands-on-deck urgency that simply demands attention. “Outside the Aviary” goes through more bits and transitions than most songs twice its length, but asked if this was a conscious tightening of the screws on songwriting, Robbins maintains he was simply following his instincts.
“It’s just how it came out,” he says via e-mail. “I am not happy when a song feels like it’s treading water, so I aspire to keep everything in motion, always developing, maybe too much in too short a time.” That restless, kinetic feel is one of the bedrock qualities of Burning Airlines’ second record, and it can make for some uneasy listening. If the band were more prone to wallowing in the twisting and turning bits that link together their songs, they could have veered close to prog territory, but as it is, the technical brilliance comes in bursts, the music married to a distinctly post-punk kind of economy.
Understanding Robbins’ background both as a musician and producer goes a long way towards clarifying the complexity of Identikit. Robbins began his musical career playing bass for D.C. hardcore band Government Issue before going on to lead Jawbox, Burning Airlines, and now Channels. As significant as his career as a musician has been, he’s arguably had more impact as a producer. Some of the better known bands whose records he produced are The Promise Ring, Jets to Brazil, Texas is the Reason, Hey Mercedes, and The Dismemberment Plan. His most fertile period as a producer coincided with the peak of my interest in labels like Revelation and Jade Tree—in the summer of ’98, it seemed like every record I bought was produced by Robbins, and when you’re 21 and a musician, that’s enough to make someone a kind of idol.
Burning Airlines’ debut, Mission: Control!, somehow never really got at me, despite incredible songs like “Pacific 231” and “Wheaton Calling.” But Robbins, through his production work on other bands’ records, had earned enough capital for me to check out Identikit upon its release in 2001, and I quickly went about trying to wear out the CD. Somehow, Burning Airlines was always getting tossed into the emo genre, despite the fact that their brand of post-punk was less amount emotional catharsis and more about fixing complicated ideas about identity to jagged shards of fiery guitar and thunderous yet intricate drumming. Bands like Burning Airlines and Jets to Brazil always had a far more deft touch than later groups like Thursday or Taking Back Sunday because they weren’t simply co-opting the political dissent of punk for personal and emotional purposes. Instead, they were modulating that broad and fiery anger into personal narratives of discontent and anxiety. Burning Airlines’ music is not a smoothing out of punk’s edges—it’s sharper and smarter. And Robbins’ confident hand behind the board guaranteed they’d make some of the best-sounding records around.
But balancing the roles of musician and producer can sometimes be difficult. Producers are paid to do for musicians what they can’t do for themselves: step outside a band’s sound and unify it through careful attention to detail. A lot of records by producers (Jon Brion’s come to mind) can come off as overly mannered—impeccable sounding, but without a real core. And it wouldn’t be out of place to level such criticisms at Identikit; it’s fundamentally an acquired taste kind of album—verbose, perhaps a little too long for its own good, and afflicted with Robbins’ particular strain of musical ADD. But Robbins avows that he’s always tried to sidestep some of the typical pitfalls of the producer/musician.
One of the ways he tries to stay out of his own way is by working with other sound engineers, even if he has a hard time giving away some of that control. “I love the idea of giving the mix over to someone whose ears I really trust—for example John Agnello, who mixed Identikit. It’s harder for me to let someone else really run a tracking session for a band that I’m in (John recorded a few basic tracks for Identikit and that was really fun, too, but I ended up re-doing the guitars). That’s not a control thing so much as a way of mediating my neurosis about my playing. I get really nervous playing guitar and singing with another engineer; it’s like I start to think I’m wasting everyone’s time. Totally neurotic … and I get worse and worse … engineering and playing at the same time actually liberates me from my neurosis about playing! In that circumstance, I can’t start to focus on my playing—I have too much else to keep on top of so I have to be on autopilot as a guitarist and then I play better.”
And as for any notion that his music will be held to a higher standard sound-wise because of his experience as a producer, he just tries to put it out of his mind. “I guess I think about that occasionally but I never get hung up on it,” he says, “because I can only very rarely write a song with a goal in mind and when I do, it’s usually not that good. The music I’ve made that I’m most proud of is the result of an almost unconscious effort—it just comes out either from me playing on my own or in a group jam situation, and then I edit after the fact (which is a more conscious process and does actually have a bearing on the ‘producer’ thing). I guess some people might expect a ‘producer’s’ own music to have some extra ‘production’ wow-factor, but I am mostly interested in coming up with music that I think is good, and maybe stretches my abilities as a player or lyricist. All the production in the world means nothing if the material has no intrinsic worth. I would rather hear a flat recording of a good song than a masterpiece of production that’s just hiding a mediocre song.”
As a case in point, he’s very upfront about what he perceives as his own failures. “Tastykake,” a late track on the album, is fascinating from a production standpoint. The drums are strikingly lo-fi in comparison to the rest of the record, and stapled to a discomfiting pattern that defies attempts at comprehension. The guitar is fuzzy and distant, except for the part where you can hear the unamplified strings of the electric guitar cutting through the haze. It certainly doesn’t represent Burning Airlines very well, but even though I find it interesting, Robbins is less charitable.
“It was a mistake to put that song on the record,” he laments. “It’s a real misstep, an exact example of trying to write a song with a goal in mind (to incorporate some stylistic elements of trip-hop and 90’s R&B), and even though some of the parts are cool, it really sounds to me like a warehouse of spare parts from other songs that never got finished, all just crammed together with hack transitions. All that overt ‘production’ is a tip-off that there isn’t actually much of a song there to begin with. But that’s exactly why it’s called ‘Tastykake.’ It’s all icing and empty calories, no real nutrition.”
It’s not surprising that Robbins already had a sense of that track’s throwaway nature when he named it because his eye for storytelling and detail is so keen elsewhere on the record. That dichotomy between clarity and desire, between order and chaos, is fleshed out and expanded in the passion crime drama of “Morricone Dancehall,” where Robbins voice alternates between an accusatory shout and a carnival barker’s grandstanding. “Damned!” explodes the song. “Is this the body you were last found living in? / What you bury has a way of blossoming. / All that bitterness in bloom on your skin / and the fiction cruelly continuing: slick surrogate to get to the bottom of everything. / The detective sings, bedridden in the far west wing.”
Stream “Morricone Dancehall” below:
It’s an interesting approach to lyric writing, and emblematic of Robbins’ tactic throughout the record. He writes in neither bland universalisms nor in strikingly realistic detail. The viewpoint is occasionally surreal and almost always has a storytelling, rather than confessional, tone: in “Morricone Dancehall” it has the distinct feel of a pulp crime novel in places (“Without the body there is no crime,” goes the hook) while “Surgeon’s House” echoes the tones of a family drama like Franzen’s The Corrections (talking about a photo of, presumably, the narrator’s deceased mother, “Was this before she died / from making the best of it?”). Robbins also displays an almost nerdy infatuation with complicated words and syntax. In “Lexicon,” he explores the way past hurts become both a perverse point of pride and also provide an emotional subtext for the decisions we make. “Defeated honorees trade self-made mythologies,” he sings, “Who are these vampires, these ugly beauties? … Test for fatal deficits. / Prove to you that you exist. / Part-time assassin, who’s next on this list?”
The protagonists in the songs on Identikit share a kind of Hamlet-esque dilemma. They’re longing for hot-blooded emotion to overcome their analytical nature, for clarity to lose out to desire, but they’re constantly being caught up in the intricacies of their situations. Despite the propulsive, rhythmically complex post-punk music that supports their stories, they’re almost universally observers: looking at photos, asking questions about human nature, lamenting the futility of humanity in the face of the military-industrial complex (“Deluxe War Baby”), and wondering about the possibility of real intimacy. That last situation, from “Song with No Words,” gives the album’s most lucid insight to this struggle between words and actions: “Here are some words,” it begins, “Can you take them away? / Some better ways / for what they mean to say.”
Since Identikit, Robbins has managed to make a kind of peace with words. When I ask him about where lyrics enter into the songwriting process for him, he replies, “Almost always absolutely last. I think the first couple lines of ‘Aviary’ came with the chords and melody, but usually the melody and/or changes come first, then I rewrite the guitar part to make it interesting, then I agonize over the lyrics forever. Or it’s a whole-band jam and I scat-sing a melody, we arrange around that, and then I agonize over the lyrics forever. I used to agonize about making it interesting and cryptic, now I agonize about making it clear without making it boring. Lyrics are really important to me but it’s very hard to find words that feel authentic. I often think I should practice writing the way I might practice guitar, then it might come easier.”
For my money, I think one of the very hardest things to do as an artist is to make your personal struggle with the act of creation an integral part of that creation. It’s difficult because that battle with your own deficiencies is a.) something that you’re naturally disinclined to give voice to and b.) something that’s difficult to perceive from inside the process. Any creative endeavor is more or less giving order to, or at least framing, the unbounded chaos that makes up life. There are artists who make their process an integral part of the art they produce, and there are artists who seek to hide their process as much as possible. To listen to Identikit is to hear an artist struggling for authenticity through characters who are struggling for authenticity, for decisiveness, and that’s what makes it a powerfully human record.
As wonderful and amazing as music is, some things are immeasurably larger. On January 27, 2006, J. Robbins and his wife Janet Morgan welcomed their first child, Callum Robbins, into the world. In September of ’06, Callum was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. As a result, Callum will never walk, and the family just recently relocated to a house that will accommodate the wheelchair that Callum is due for within the next year. People who know the family and their situation far better than I have written eloquently about their situation right here, and I can’t encourage you enough to go and donate some money there. You can also read about their experiences on Callum’s blog here.