Cleared for Takeoff

Jets to Brazil’s Blake Schwarzenbach is a scribble.

He’s a mass of absent-minded curlicues dabbled in the margin, lonely and gentle. He’s a twisting, angular doodle with sharp edges and an ominous contour. He’s the outside-the-lines coloring made by a three-year-old wondrously trying his hand at coloring with a Crayola gripped firmly in a little fist. He’s faint wavy lines made by a lazy pencil that’s struggling with the fact it lacks the permanence of its ink-pen office supply buddies. He’s all those disorganized, random and thoroughly entrancing bursts of messy lines that waste ink, adorn scrap paper and kill time. He’s anything in the world but a straight line.

No, Schwarzenbach doesn’t get on so well with the linear world. If that fact hasn’t been made apparent on his band’s previous two albums, his latest, Perfecting Loneliness (2002, Jade Tree), should make it completely clear. Joined by band mates Jeremy Chatelain (bass), Christopher Daly (drums) and Brian Maryansky (guitar), Schwarzenbach indulges hither-and-yon songwriting that touches on everything from catchy power pop with “The Frequency” to a lull that’s claustrophobic, nay, suffocating “Rocket Boy.” Order? There’s nothing of the sort. The crisp, ruled straight lines by which most bands define themselves couldn’t attempt to frame the Jets’ organic, spiraling and unpredictable trajectory.

The ironic thing is, Perfecting Loneliness is the band’s most structured album yet. The band’s debut, Orange Rhyming Dictionary (1998, Jade Tree), moved through tempered indie pop and rock, introversion and rallied power. The act’s last effort, 2000’s Four Cornered Night (Jade Tree) took the act into similarly unfocused waters, although an air of downtrodden, often over-the-top, sentimentality pervaded everything. For Perfecting Loneliness to sound rambling, rather than confused, it was a major step forward in the act’s creative process.

“I’ve heard from people that it seems more consistent or more like an album,” Schwarzenbach says. “The other ones seem like song collections or being from different periods in a band’s life, which makes me happy, I would hope it to be a consistent record. When it was being written, some of the songs seemed really dangerous to me.”

The danger pays off. Where Four Cornered Night was, by and large, too personal and melancholy for its own good, Perfecting Loneliness strikes a balance between Schwarzenbach’s journal-entry honesty and a collected and calm public image. It’s not the edge, the lyrics that threaten to become too personal to bear, though never fall over the edge into schmaltzy sap, however, that makes Perfecting Loneliness seem, like Schwarzenbach said, the band’s first cohesive album; it’s that underneath the doodles, messy cross-hatchings and the rest of the scribble that surrounds the act is a vision.

It may be a bit tough to see, especially when you’re up close to it. Pull, back, however, and, like a pointillist painting, Schwarzenbach’s chicken-scratch artistic vision comes into focus. It’s hard, if not impossible, to see, if one looks at the individual lines in the scribble, as the band’s songs jump from one style, from pop to balladry to indie rock as with each track. It’s tough to discern when taking in a single album, as the act’s traditionally been criticized for the way its helter-skelter output makes developing cohesive albums nearly impossible.

“I always hope that it looks like there’s a plan rather than I’m just stumbling through chaotically,” Schwarzenbach says. “Sometimes it feels like there’s a plan, when we finish a record or something comes together. It’s all unconscious, but you’re on some sort of path.”

Now, with three albums’ worth of material for fans to sort, and four years of touring to help audiences make sense of its work, Jets to Brazil is finally coming into focus. What was once either seen as a glorified side project or a band that was just weird and confusing, has now taken on a life of its own. Jets isn’t about challenging audience preconceptions or challenging the limits of its art. It’s a more personal test.

“We really just challenged ourselves,” Schwarzenbach says. “Ever since we came together it was about trying to play in new directions for us. I know I’m a very limited musician with a very big scope, or a huge appetite. I think it’s always been about exceeding our grasp, in a way, but hopefully finding a new place in the process.”

We’ll admit that could easily manifest itself as a big, steaming pile of pretense. When it’s coupled with an album with the depth, earnest hope and honesty as Perfecting Loneliness, it’s not. While the band hasn’t achieved anything to merit living-legend status, its latest could be the closest thing to a post-emo London Calling we’ve seen: The band waltzes through a host of pop and rock idioms and bends them around the haunting strains of the twentysomething wasteland that has always inspired the act’s music. No, Jets doesn’t have the vision, the scope or, as of yet, the talent to deserve comparisons to The Clash, but they’re working from the same ideological blueprint, that’s for sure.

So how’s a band keep the focus it needs to make sense of the seemingly random scribbles it makes? Mostly by doing its best to block out music culture. There’s no way Jets to Brazil can pretend it works in a vacuum: Its three albums have earned enough attention from the indie underground to put the band permanently in the spotlight. Even before Orange Rhyming Dictionary dropped and the act hit the road in fall of 1998, there was a heck of a buzz around the band. Between Schwarzenbach’s Jawbreaker roots and Daly’s tenure in the nearly as impressive Texas is the Reason, everyone with a CD player and an interest in indie music was slobbering in anticipation of the band’s emergence from the practice space.

Despite the hoopla that surrounded the band, Schwarzenbach and company made efforts to cut themselves out of the frenzy that grew around them. Flush the expectations, overlook the history, put on heavy boots and stomp on the face of hoopla – after being liberated from all three in the embryonic stages of the band, Jets soon realized it operated best when it operated outside of the claustrophobic embrace of the music world.

“It was really cool because it felt like a really small band. We were really excited about it before that expectations entered,” Schwarzenbach says. “We were this little band and I was really happy to be in that place. I tried to hang onto it as long as I could. We talked about how it’s really important for us to maintain some kind of innocence whenever we can, even if it’s a self-conscious, self-imposed innocence. We try not to know too much about what’s happening.”

Since then, the band’s held onto its distance from expectations with fanatic fervor. Fans and the media have called out, begged, growled and whimpered for the act to make turn its mass of clumpy curlicues, and messy doodling into something more approaching the blueprint-ready accuracy that’s typical of bands. Understanding something so complex is tough, so they bitch, whine and moan for something more simple. It’s not going to happen. Jets to Brazil is cut off from the world in which its music lives.

“That’s the innocence that we try to maintain,” Schwarzenbach says. “I think when we’re in our room, away from music culture, and we don’t tour that much, we can stay in that illusion, or make that illusion a reality. It’s just us in a room. That’s what we do.”

Of course, there’s downsides from cutting audience reactions and expectations out of the songwriting equation. The Jets have experienced them first hand. If you’re a fan of the band, you have too. Those downsides bear the title of Four Cornered Night. The act’s most introverted work, it’s tough to unravel, even by the band’s own challenging standards. Amid the rampant sentimentality (one reviewer said it’s “more reminiscent of a lengthy novel by Proust than anything you’d expect from a rock band”), and the band’s own self-indulgence, the Jets dropped an album that ignored audience expectations so much as to almost destroy its audience.

Nonetheless, Schwarzenbach stands behind his previous release. In fact, the band still doesn’t quite understand why reactions to the album, which also featured in-studio inspiration and help from producer J. Robbins, were so lukewarm.

“I felt like last time it was really a shock to us, because we were really happy with that record and thought it was, in J.’s words, unimpeachable on its own terms,” Schwarzenbach admits. “The reaction seemed to be of stunned silence, at least for the first year of it. There was a little ‘Woah, what happened to the Jets? You guys became mellow!’ I think as we toured it and played it, it became palatable. It became history, basically. We were just really surprised. You think you know you did the right thing and … whatever. You just have to hang in there.”

Maybe there are scribbles that are too messy, clumps where a pen’s absent tracing of subconscious patterns are too thick to decipher and times when a little order is in order. It’s not going to stop the Jets from sticking to their modus operandi. Good or bad, messy or ordered, the fans will have to figure the band out on its own terms.

Even after Perfecting Loneliness is digested, Schwarzenbach is still a scribble. He’s ragged around the edges and really hard to understand, but if he can lead a band to heights found on his latest album, we can only hope the pressures of music culture never unravel his tangled songwriting or his nonlinear personality.

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