Jawbox's J. Robbins goes solo with ambitious new album

Kevin J. Elliott
J. Robbins and J. Robbins

From the initial moments of “Anodyne,” on J. Robbins’ solo album, Un-Becoming, it’s easy to sense a cathartic energy that hasn’t been around for a while in his music, or at least for a couple of decades.

In that opening track, he hints at a numbness, a populous “sick with a lack of imagination” and a sort of mid-life ennui that can only really be cured by being a resisting contributor to the culture. To that end, Robbins has been an important and loyal soldier in the trenches of what he calls the “true independent music underground” of first Washington, D.C. and now Baltimore, for nearing 30 years.

That Un-Becoming is the first record that bears his name is surprising in its aggression. One might assume a settling down with age, but as Robbins reflects, the charge was needed. To wit, Un-Becoming is Robbins in the most clear and direct headspace of his storied career. “A lot of the lyrics are kind of self-soothing in the face of the Trump age, or maybe more broadly a response to the idea of big, uninvited life changes, where you have to remind yourself that putting one foot in front of the other is the way to keep going forward,” said Robbins, who'll perform with his band at Rumba Cafe on Saturday, Dec. 14. “The biggest goal was to be less cryptic and more focused, to have more clear intent than I have in the past. At least I think I know what everything is about.”

The hoi polloi know Robbins best as the founder of Jawbox, the unwieldy mid-’90s quartet he fronted through alternative nation. In that blitz, the band left the stridently independent post-hardcore D.C. scene, and Dischord Records, to chip in two nervy, angular albums for Atlantic. Both were bursting with mechanical rhythms, skronky guitar riffs and a melodic heart. In retrospect, the love for those records borders on obsessive, but Jawbox was never really cut for the majors.

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“Overall people could have been way more judgmental than they were. We got some bad reactions: ‘I hope you die in a fiery van accident’ was one particularly memorable message,” said Robbins. “But overall we were quite careful and open about the fact that we didn't want to become just another product from the alt-rock widget factory, and people knew we wrestled with the decision and insisted on a high degree of autonomy. So I think people who cared were generally more with us than against us.”

Though Jawbox just reunited last summer and is, apparently, working on an honest comeback, this isn’t a story about Jawbox, and neither is Un-Becoming. If anything, the album speaks to utilitarianism and the spartan structures that have defined Robbins’ sound and made him a survivor in indie rock. In one form or another — Robbins also fronted the celebrated Burning Airlines and the slower, prettier Office of Future Plans — he has evolved outside of the mainstream music industry.

Later on the title track, Robbins makes another prophetic observation — that there is “no bread, just vicious circuses, to overload your circuits,” and that “all the medication in this karaoke nation couldn’t make you see the other side.” So what’s the other side? For Robbins, after all those years, it’s seeing the forest for the trees.

“I'm very lucky that my day job is as a producer and engineer. I am doing some kind of music-related work literally almost every day,” said Robbins. “So I'm pretty immersed and very happy about that. I still do this because I've tried to put it aside and misery was the result. I'll do it until I keel over, whether anyone is listening or not.”

Rumba Cafe

9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14th

2507 Summit St., Old North


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J. Robbins (band)