Day Thirty-One: Burning Airlines – Identikit

Arctic Rodeo Recordings ■ ARR044

Released May 8, 2001¹
Recorded by John Agnello with Jake Mossman; J. Robbins and Burning airlines
Mixed by John Agnello with J. Robbins, Mike Harbin, and Peter Moffett
Mastered by Alan douches
¹This expanded vinyl released 11/16/2012

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Outside the Aviary
  2. Morricone Dancehall
  3. A Lexicon
  4. The Deluxe War Baby
  5. A Song with No Words
  6. All Sincerity
  7. The Surgeon’s House
  8. Everything Here Is New
  1. Paper Crowns
  2. Blind Trial
  3. Identikit
  4. Tastykake
  5. Earthbound
  6. Election-Night Special
  7. Dear Hilary
  8. Action
Track listing note: many of the tracks are shuffled from their listed order, but the above is the order in which they actually play. “The Deluxe War Baby” is shifted to its place above from being listed between “The Surgeon’s House” and “Everything Here Is New”. “Election-Night Special” is listed between “Identikit” and “Tastykake”. The lyrics are also printed in this written order, not the order in which they play.
Out of all the polls I’ve run, I had a feeling (much like I suspected March on Electric Children would be the least acknowledged entry so far) Burning Airlines would be the most “difficult” vote to squeeze out. I pushed pretty hard on the Boomtown Rats, but I sort of gave up with Burning Airlines. Most people I know are in the wrong music generation (regardless of their actual age) and/or scene to know Burning Airlines, and I know that is the one thing that really makes people reluctant to throw out a vote. I decided to get around this in a sneaky and vaguely ridiculous way: I actually asked J. Robbins (check those credits up top) and Peter Moffett if there was an album they’d prefer me to write on. Mr. Robbins’s been nothing but kind with my intermittent fawning and questions, and said very nice things about my writing on his previous band, Jawbox. On this he suggested I flip a coin to pick the album, and that he’d be happy I was writing about either, which I can understand and respect–there’s going to be plenty tied up in these for someone involved. I asked Mr. Moffett a bit more privately, and didn’t even catch the first notification that he’d actually answered. The response was just a single word: Identikit. It was a relief, in a way; a singular vote from another fan that wandered into my question to J. and voted for Mission: Control! which would have stuck me with another tie and, well, another coin toss, actually. I wanted to have something fresh and different to break this one up, though, and so Mr. Moffett gets a gracious thanks for taking the time to answer me and break the tie–even if it was before there was a tie!
As I mentioned, I wrote a lot about Jawbox on my last blog–or, at least, I wrote one really emphatic entry about them. A commenter (one of very few I ever saw!) suggested I check out J.’s other bands, and started with Burning Airlines (to be fair, they were in chronological order). Of course, in a weird way, it was actually Burning Airlines that inspired the basic level of interest anyway–this was the band that released a split with At the Drive-In after all. But their CDs seemed to be thoroughly out of print: I tried ordering one through my local record stores, and no dice (the other was more blatantly out of print). I put a word in with the record stores that new me and bought used music from customers, but it took months before I finally stumbled into one at Schoolkids in Raleigh, NC. And as my jaw dropped (really), I looked below it to find the other. They were slightly mangled, but fully playable, and I was happy as could be when I walked out of the store that day. I enjoyed the heck out of those albums, and it wasn’t more than a few more months when the release of both albums on vinyl was announced.
While J. has been in demand as a producer and released work with a few more bands, his son Callum has been a large part of where his energy has been focused, even publicly. Callum was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) and the medical bills related to this are not the kind that are easy to deal with, so the vinyl release was announced as partly being another fundraiser for that reason. Between the excitement of the announcement–as well as the news that bonus tracks would be included–and the fact that part of each sale was going to help Callum, it was kind of a no-brainer to order up. Still, I was basically broke–between jobs, to some extent–so I worked out an advance Christmas present order from my parents to make sure I could get my hands on both, worried as I was about them disappearing.
I haven’t listened to them much, purely because they’re at the beginning of the alphabet, and I knew I’d get here soon (and that doesn’t mean I didn’t listen to the original CDs, my digital copies, my digital copies of related tracks, or the included expanded CDs!). I selected the colouring of this one out of the three available, much as I did with Mission: Control!, and settled on the colour I just didn’t have in my collection yet–the blue and white swirl. The availability of the two records from Arctic Rodeo themselves hints at something that surprised me in the album selection: Mission: Control! is the sold out album, was the first one I was told to listen to, and was the one voted for by a fan (outside the poll). It makes it interesting, then, that both Mr. Moffett and two people who did vote picked it in the end. It’s a happy sort of occurrence that I like for the very fact of its unexpected nature.
Arctic Rodeo packed the record in a resealable plastic sleeve, with the record in a plain white paper sleeve outside the actual cover to keep it from being split in transit–a nice bit of care that not even used sellers often bother with. They also allow for colour selection (though the red/black is all that’s left of Identikit, or with them at all from the band), which Dischord (the U.S. label that originally released the first two Jawbox albums, as well as the LPs from Channels and Office of Future Plans, both of them J. Robbins projects) does not provide, though they still have stock of both albums. Eventually, some more of their releases should be showing up in this blog, once they arrive (the label is in Germany, and has a smaller staff, but are very good about what they do).
Now, I said that Mission: Control! was the album that was singled out as good when I first picked up both Burning Airlines albums, but I picked up both of them at the same time. There was no intermediary period where I only had one to wear in before I heard the other, which I think is a decent part of what keeps that impression burning with fans. I mean, when an album opens with a song like “Outside the Aviary”, it’s difficult to see what anyone could see as lacking. J.’s voice comes in immediately, aggressive but not angry in sound, “Now clarity lost out to desire, and I married the madness in her eyes”, riffing rapidly behind himself on guitar in a way that brings melody but leaves the focus on voice and words. A wild bursting slide brings Moffett’s “membranophones and idiophones” in on a fill, with Harbin blurring into the background just a bit, until J.’s riffing slips down to a much quieter lick, one with a downward turn that puts that kick into the song that let’s you know it’s not like every other song you’ve heard, but is so completely organic as a move that it isn’t at all a gimmick just to be unique. Moffett doesn’t let up at all, though, rocksteady and pounding along on a seemingly simple beat, as Harbin rumbles up and down, taking control of the instrumental melody behind J.’s voice, which is suddenly harmonized by Moffett in a very pretty way, who suddenly takes off with a fill that launches the song into the air: J.’s voice regains an edge as Moffett adds a lovely series of “Woo-oo”s that would seem weird in a song like this–especially coming out of a drummer this emphatic–if they weren’t somehow just right anyway. There’s a fantastically rapid series of kicks from him as J. and Peter launch into an alternating repetition of the song’s title, before a halting beat and riffs end the song suddenly. 
“Morricone Dancehall” has a guitar sound at open that is bent just off clear and keyed, giving it a metallic edge, like two strings wobbling toward each other as a guitar is tuned, but stopping short of actually reaching the same note. Moffett enters underneath, with a much more peculiar beat than “Outside the Aviary”, that blends in a delightful way into Harbin’s burbling bassline, the both seeming to intertwine as they both hit their lowest pitches. “Damned!” J. suddenly interjects, “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,” his words furiously running into each other, but unslurred, though there’s just a hint that his voice is coming from a distance or through a muffling like a microphone. The guitar is no longer riffing and clanging metallically, but quavering in slightly dissonant waves. The original sound returns though, for a much more ominous bridge where Moffett joins Robbins: “And all the aces are wired, and all the forces conspire in this brutal bed” that suddenly turns to a sneer from them both: “Without the body there is no crime”. After running through this chorus a second time, a wandering series of notes ended with chords is backed by a wonderfully smooth, looping sort of bassline from Harbin. 
Staccato riffs that hold the same note for four beats at a time open “A Lexicon”, before Harbin hesitantly enters, the bass only marking a bit more time than the guitar. When Moffett enters, the stiffness of the song is suddenly released with a beat that almost shifts it toward a danceable sort of groove, a neat trick when it happens, made that much more impressive by the way that it plays with and against Harbin’s half-rhythmic, half-melodic bassline. J.’s riffing doubles then builds with Moffett, and then drops away to clean, clear single-picked guitar notes. But then both the stiff, nearly monotonic guitar and the dancing drum turn to a sound that feels more like the sound you’d expect from a rock band, despite never making apparent that it was going to turn “normal” for any reason.
The song the band contributed to the At the Drive-In split was “The Deluxe War Baby”, which appears next on the record, built on a partly muted guitar lick that lollops along with the bass to give it almost the sense of a Western-y, cowboy-type sound, until Moffett’s wild drumming carries them all into a more fully ranged period of the song that also sends Robbins’s voice up into its heights. The whole thing swings, but not swing like a swing band, more like a pendulum with a groove to its arc, bobbing just slightly, moving forward instead of standing in place. Not a song to sneeze at, and a perfectly reasonable selection for inclusion on a release usually intended to function as representative (as with Jawbox, the version appearing on the split is a different recording, so far as I can tell).
“A Song with No Words” is nothing of the kind, as J. even opens the song singing, “Here are some words…” but it most certainly could’ve survived even as an instrumental. A dissonantly melodic (yeah, figure that one out–it’s a Robbins specialty, though) opens the song, scrabbling along the strings but never losing a moment as it shifts in pitch. It disappears in favour of letting Moffett lay down a short, sharp rhythm that seems to keep the rhythm on the hi-hat (and the occasional “thing that goes ting-a-ling”, as well as the one that goes “plink”²) separate from the drum and kick. Mike is again playing a chopped up bassline, but this one sounds like going up and down a few stairs at a time, then pausing to consider. It’s the heartbeat of the song, as both J. and Peter are wandering in far more directions on either end of it. It’s a slower, more relaxed song as compared to the prior ones, and that opening lick is just fantastic.
I don’t know where J. gets to find all the cool drummers, but he seems to do so anyway. I spent a lot of my writing about Jawbox talking about the mighty Zach Barocas (which I apparently was right to do, in his eyes), and Moffett shines in this band. “All Sincerity” has enough space in it to make this apparent: tiny, wonderfully varied fills litter the song, all adding just a little bit here and there, but a simple listen sounds more like it’s just a nice rock and roll beat. This is also an opportune time to point out that when J. said in his thing with Death Cab’s Chris Walla that he agonizes over lyrics for a long time, it shows: “Let’s clarify this twist/Pin this butterfly kiss/Senseless senses sweetly simplify/We twitch like marionettes in lascivious bliss/Silhouette, silhouette, how black is your heart?” Woof. It’s not the only example on here, but working in a tongue-twisting set of words and that much alliteration without sacrificing sense or simply setting up everything around it is some kind of achievement.
The burn and brush of “The Surgeon’s House” is another highlight: that lick from J. is amazing, the way it leans you back like a friend but has a devilish sort of subtext in tone–the kind that I just cannot wait to hear again every time I hear it. Mike anchors it heavily with a tightly cadenced bassline, and Peter laying down a jazzy beat that’s more cymbal and brush than powerful kick just lets that lick shine like it should. Robbins also works out a much quieter version of his voice than we’ve heard on the album so far, letting the track seem non-threatening until the lick flexes its muscle, eventually beginning to completely overtake everything else, wandering in and out and around itself, Peter backing it with the song’s most forceful drumming. 
Strange electronic noises (I’m voting for “space sounds” by Mike here, though that phrase is subject to lots of interpretation) open “Everything Here Is New”, and a reverberating guitar joins them to create a quirk that turns mysterious. There’s a mist over the track, and what’s under it is unclear–the instruments are apparent (or, at least, clear–those noises are beyond my amateur ear’s ability to place). Harbin’s bass weaves right around Robbins’s voice, which sweeps an arm out to display this world of newness, ghosts, shell games and emptiness to the listener.
I was tempted to completely deadpan the idea that “Paper Crowns” was about a birthday party at a Burger King, but the only concession I’ll make to that idea is admitting it. On the surface, the opening of the song would be normal were it not for the skronking bend that appears at the end of each repetition. Tambourines that echo ’60s pop in sound and rhythm are hiding in here (perhaps that’s what goes “ting-a-ling”?), backing a full-bodied set of vocals from Peter and J. in unison. Peter takes some control for a later bridge, which eases the tempo of the song like an ethereal connector between the beginning and end of the song–and let’s Harbin get in a few notes in the forefront. And then it all spirals off into a glitchy electronic breakdown that kicks us right into “Blind Trial”.
At open, J. is flattened ears and questioning, guitar playing a broken jangle, quiet and muted, and Peter and Mike adding a rhythm section straight out of pop punk–1-2,1-2 drums, steady quarter notes on the bass, and then all of them go somewhere else for the chorus: a tightly wound spring of guitar and a bass free of restraint, drums no longer stuck with just snare-kick-snare-kick, yet all still absolutely controlled. Interestingly, it’s the moment the vocals are most “normal”, a nice, “simple” chorus! And then it starts to breakdwon at its second appearance: “This drug was never approved” J. sings, and the signature changes entirely, stretching and dragging as if the drug in question was affecting the song itself. It finds its feet again, though, regaining its control and returning the original chorus. Then a near drum solo turns to spacey stretching and repetition from J. and Peter’s voices.
Did I say Peter got to shine earlier? Go back and forget that. The opening of the title track is something else. Where you would think to hear a simple roll across toms, there’s an alternating in pitch that means either there’s a very deep tom, or he’s alternating toms and kicks (!)³, usually more the hallmark of long-winded drum solos, but here worked directly into the song as Robbins and Harbin join on top of it. The ringing harmonic-style sound J. uses heavily in Burning Airlines is heavy here. The chorus is almost a “breakdown”–driving, rhythmic riffing and pounding drums define the beat absolutely explicitly.
“Tastykake” is interesting: Harbin’s bass is the only instrument that sounds normal. Moffett gets to open another track with a thump-skitter sort of beat that turns to a rapid, wild solo, but sounds vaguely deadened, as does the hanging distorted effect of Robbins’ guitar. Quiet and warm, J. sings an opening line that I can only suspect refers to his wife, but could just coincidentally name someone with the same first name. Still, the song seems to have a sense that that’s the sort of relationship it would be directed at in some respects. It feels as if the instruments are crushed into a small box as it opens, but opens up when Moffett adds a shaker to his rhythms, and J,’s guitar widens its own sound, his voice opening up, too. 
Often an appropriate choice for latter ends of albums, J. sings with acoustic guitar on “Earthbound”, a thumping low string creating the only audible rhythmic anchor. The guitar has a similar “crushed” sound to “Tastykake”–a deliberately off, simple, rough recording. A wobble snakes in and out of the part, but J.s vocals, especially when joined by Peter on the chorus, are clear and pretty. 
“Election-Night Special” is the low-end gravity of the album: thumping bass, kicks and even low end riffs drive the whole thing (my inexpert ear even suspects there might be some down-tuning at play here). It’s almost fragmentary in its appearance: it’s only 2 minutes, and opens with the crescendoing snare hits that a fair number of songs do, and when it cuts off, feels more abrupt than sudden, despite no cuts in the actual playing.
Another song with multiple recordings and appearances, “Dear Hilary” is a cover (of sorts) of the band Metroschifter, and also appears on the “Metroschifter” album Encapsulated (it’s actually their then-new album, only it’s recorded by bands they chose–clever idea, really). The band worked from a demo outline to create the song. It’s a smart choice for the final song (bear with me, now, if you’re looking at the tracklist), as it’s the work of the band, but is very much not the style they’ve displayed elsewhere in the album. A clean, haunting guitar finger-picking is the core of the song, eventually doubled, then later backed with almost pure-cymbal “drums”, but for a falling set of tom beats repeated intermittently. Harbin anchors, and J. and Peter’s voices join together, the closest the song comes to aggression. J. finally repeats the opening line and throws himself at it: “Dear Hilary, how many years has it been/Since you were going off to college and you wrote me a letter?” It closes with the kind of line and sound that just hangs in the air afterward: “The hardest thing about opening up to someone is putting so much power in their hands.”
However, I mentioned this album is expanded. It now closes with a cover of Sweet’s “Action”, which the band plays quite straightforwardly–and who can blame them? This kind of infectious glam rock is just fun, and I have little doubt it’s also quite fun to play. The solo J. peels off is more in line with the kind that fits the song–not that I’m going to pretend to be familiar with the original version of “Sweet”, and it’d be disingenuous to run out now and try to compare them quickly as I write. It feels like a bonus track, in the sense of a hidden one–like the kind of thing that would “hide” at the end, instead of being right out there. A delightful addition, really.
I thanked Peter Moffett earlier for nudging me into a final decision regarding albums, but I should also thank J. Robbins who was kind enough to satisfy my pedantic desires and tell me that “Action” was actually recorded for the Japanese release of this album–as well as commenting on my Jawbox entry, and answering my request for a decision on this topic, too (even if his answer was to not choose one!). If I sound overly chummy, I don’t mean to; I just send him electronic questions here and there when I can stop fidgeting and worrying over it long enough to bite the bullet and accept that I might be obnoxious in doing so. 
Regardless, when I wrote about Big Star, I mentioned that there was actually one band I’d demand people listen to before I did Big Star, and only as relates to the comparative familiarity of the world at large. Then backpedaled a bit. That’s because I don’t have Jawbox or For Your Own Special Sweetheart on vinyl, which I think I mentioned. I’ve only got a lone single (“Absenter” b/w “Chinese Fork Tie”). If pressed, though, this is the band I’d tell people they need to hear. J.’s style on a guitar manages to simultaneously cover strange, alien, atonal, dissonant, and catchy, melodic, and irresistible. Moffett and Harbin don’t leave the band’s sound anemic outside of the most established musical voice, either, and neither fail to live up to his work, nor sit flaccid in the back and pound out boring tripe, instead adding equal and interesting parts to create a still unique sound.
One of the most bizarre things I ever read was the series of negative reviews for their two albums on Amazon that complained that they sounded like new albums from Jawbox. Why this was something to complain about is entirely beyond me–and it wasn’t even, contextually, something those reviewers saw as bad. Not even repetition–actual evolution. It boggles the mind even now. I’d kill (hyperbole, of course) for new Jawbox–to find an evolution of that sound was…indescribable. There are so many bands and sounds I wish I could get more of, instead of complete disappearance or lackluster retread. Here we have a band that actually is distinctly different, even as it ties backward. Burning Airlines have a more “upbeat” sound to them than the latter half of Jawbox: wiry tension, aggression, or semi-morose tones defined a lot of that band’s latter work. Not in a bad way (if it was a bad way, Jawbox would not be one of those albums that somehow worms its way into my regular listening all the bloody time), but in a way that just felt a part of the sound.
Burning Airlines may not be quite cheerful, I suppose, but it’s almost like melding the crashes, bangs, and clatters of Jawbox back into a more pop-like format (which should never be considered or taken as an insult, for the record, which I think my collection will show increasingly). The harmonic leanings–most definitively apparent in Mission: Control!‘s “Scissoring” even give J. a different feeling in this band.
I guess the end result is: don’t complain about good things. And certainly don’t complain about amazing things that you almost never get.
²It’s a triangle. But that’s one of the things he’s credited with on the album, alongside things that go “plonk” and “plink”–the latter I decided were the claves in “A Song with No Words”, but onomatopoeia can, oddly, mean different sounds to people. Oh, yes: also membranophones and ideophones. IE, his brand-conscious “blue drums and shiny cymbals”. Yeah, I really read all of the liner notes. An amusing parallel to J. and Mike’s usage of Schecter Guitars–“blue drums and shiny cymbals”. Ha!
³I apologize profusely to drummers who know things, including Peter Moffett himself. I’m not a drummer, I can only describe the sounds I hear–I’m not going to swear if I’m not pretty darn sure, just try to associate the sounds enough that it might make sense to someone else.
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