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What is it with rock songwriters and pianos? How is it that the two -- usually sworn enemies at the start -- often end up the best of friends? The history of rock is brimming with examples of brutal youth wooed by the lilting strains of a D-minor seventh played on a baby grand. "Androgynous," a solo voice/piano celebration of cross-dressing, is arguably the best song on the Replacements' best album. There's nary a passage on Elvis Costello's 1982 masterwork Imperial Bedroom that's not colored by Steve Nieve's ivory tinkling. And Pete Townshend not only saved his career but recorded one of the finest rock albums in history -- 1971's Who's Next -- with the help of a primitive synthesizer. Clearly there's something to those 88 keys. Just ask Blake Schwarzenbach.
"I've only been playing for a year and a half, not the hunt-and-peck method," says Schwarzenbach, on the phone one recent morning from his Brooklyn apartment.
As the ex-singer/guitarist for S.F.-based punks Jawbreaker and the current leader of Jets to Brazil, a melodic quartet that also includes bassist/vocalist Jeremy Chatelain, drummer Chris Daly, and guitarist Brian Maryanksy, Schwarzenbach spends much of the band's new album, Four Cornered Night, on keys. The result is rich, timeless rock that's still rooted in guitars, but with nary a punk convention in sight. "I think the introduction of the piano changed a lot," says Schwarzenbach. "I think it ended up affecting the songs and making them a little more orchestral, or a little more involved."
To truly appreciate Berkeley native Schwarzenbach's entry into the ranks of keyboard converts, one must first understand that he wasn't always so amenable to the idea of tempering his rock with lighter touches. After all, Jawbreaker was one of the best and most engaging -- both lyrically and musically -- melodic punk bands to emerge from the last decade's indie-rock underground. Founded by Schwarzenbach and drummer Chris Bauermeister at New York University in the late '80s, the band eventually relocated to Oakland, then San Francisco, and released a stream of critically lauded, audience-approved records that culminated in a 1995 major label debut/swan song, Dear You. When the band split up, Schwarzenbach moved back to New York City with a writing career on his mind and not much interest in resuscitating his life in the limelight.
However, as is often the case with career artists, music had other plans for Schwarzenbach, who soon found himself in the company of ex-Handsome singer Chatelain. Before they knew it, their time together began resulting in songs. Eventually, they recruited Daly, late of beloved punks Texas Is the Reason, and set about in earnest recording a debut for Delaware label Jade Tree (Promise Ring, Pedro the Lion). The result, 1999's Orange Rhyming Dictionary, is an excellent album that is quite literally the sound of Schwarzenbach and company struggling to free themselves from the yoke of their previous bands. However, despite praise from critics, the album received a lukewarm reception from sentimental Jawbreaker fans.
After touring to support the album, the band -- augmented by guitarist Maryanksy -- remained undaunted in its desire to grow beyond punk's confinements. For Schwarzenbach, who writes the largest share of the band's material, that meant woodshedding, quite literally, with his mother's piano. "There's an upright at my mom's farm in Nova Scotia," the 33-year-old singer explains. "It's an old farm piano. It sounds like some of the piano on the record -- a bit out of tune."
Last winter, Schwarzenbach spent time traveling between his mother's house and his apartment in New York City, relying largely on the upright and his more tuneful Roland digital piano to work out ideas. Schwarzenbach was intrigued by the instrument's melodic possibilities, despite being a novice. "It's a real different way of working. I was desperately trying to learn how to use my right hand," he says.
Listening to Four Cornered Night, it sounds like the practice paid off. Songs like "Pale New Dawn," "Little Light," and "All Things Good and Nice" are classy affairs, thanks to Schwarzenbach's piano experimentation and top-shelf songwriting. Other songs are so melodically realized one gets the sense they were at least helped along by his newfound interest in the instrument.
Assisting Schwarzenbach and Jets in the studio was producer J. Robbins, himself an accomplished singer, guitarist, and songwriter -- first with Washington, D.C., post-punks Jawbox and now with his new band, Burning Airlines. Having recently worked with the Promise Ring on 1999's distinctly pop album Very Emergency, Robbins is quickly gaining a reputation as a producer adroit at helping bands explore life after punk. "What was really cool about the studio experience," says Schwarzenbach, "was that J. was not afraid of the theatricality that the album seemed headed toward. Instead of ducking that, we kind of embraced it."
The band members also embraced their pre-punk roots as never before, dusting off influential albums and throwing them into the mix. "We were kind of getting closer to the stuff we've always listened to, and maybe being able to actually play that way," says Schwarzenbach, for whom the Kinks' 1969 paean to middle-class life, Arthur, held special significance during the recording.
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