the shape of punk

Jets to Brazil's 'Orange Rhyming Dictionary' Tested Punk Purists' Patience

20 years ago, members of Jawbreaker, Texas Is the Reason, and Handsome debuted a new project that leaned into alt-rock territory, dividing their audience in the process.

by David Anthony
05 October 2018, 8:19am

The Shape of Punk revisits some of the seminal albums turning 20 years old in 2018, tracing their impact and influence on the future of the scene.

In 1998, no debut album was anticipated as much as Jets To Brazil’s. The idea of people clamouring for a debut album seems strange on its face, especially for a band that had yet to release a single song, but in its own way, Orange Rhyming Dictionary was a follow-up to an entire scene.

Featuring Blake Schwarzenbach of Jawbreaker, Chris Daly of Texas Is The Reason, and Jeremy Chatelain of Handsome, it was a new band from musicians who each had a role in shaping the sound of what was being called emo in the 90s. Each band also imploded after being courted by, or signing to, a major label. All flamed out as they were hitting new creative peaks, and once people got wind that the members were all doing something new, they were curious about what would come next.

In theory, punk had always been a place where artists had the freedom to do whatever they wanted. But while the genre was still in its infancy, the hypocrisy of that maxim was already exposed. Anyone who deviated outside the codified sound of punk was dismissed, and in turn, the genre became known more for rigid limitations than outward experimentation. That holds true even now, but in the 90s, the discourse around the decisions bands made, from what labels they were on to who they toured with outside the scene, were at a fevered pitch. In a way, all that undue attention and scrutiny played a part in influencing Jawbreaker’s break-up. It was no surprise that Schwarzenbach would try to get as much distance between himself and his previous band, as he moved from San Francisco to New York City in a attempt to get away from everything he’d become known for.

Once there, he met Chatelain through his girlfriend, and with both largely ignorant of each other’s work and having the shared experience of being contractually obligated to major labels after their respective bands’ demise, they started casually playing music together. Before long, songs were taking shape and they were in need of a drummer. Daly was brought in soon thereafter, and the band that was meant as a respite for the three musicians became a serious consideration. Everyone with even a passing interest in punk was curious what these three would cook up, and Jets To Brazil wouldn’t make people wait long. An album’s worth of music was quickly pieced together, and after a couple tours supporting The Promise Ring, the songs were road-tested and ready to see the light of day.

The band, along with producer J. Robbins, decamped to Memphis, Tennessee’s Easley McCain Recording. The studio had become a go-to destination for indie-rock’s elite, with everyone from Sonic Youth and Pavement to Wilco and Cat Power having recorded there in the mid-90s. This would prove fitting, as the material Schwarzenbach had prepped fit more in with these acts than the Bay Area punk scene where he’d cut his teeth. Though he always favoured long compositions, on Jawbreaker’s swan song, 1995’s Dear You, the album’s best material was the moodiest and most expansive that he’d written. “Accident Prone” and “Jet Black” hid their explosiveness in lengthy instrumental sections, turning abstraction into catharsis and becoming a template for the bulk of Orange Rhyming Dictionary.

Released on October 27, 1998, Orange Rhyming Dictionary would polarise punks even more than Dear You had done three years earlier. Back then – and arguably even now – it’d be easy to say that it’s not actually a punk record, and only the past associations of the band’s members give it that designation. While there was truth to that, the fact that it was released on Jade Tree, a label that was home to plenty other punks turning in artier, more obtuse records, Jets To Brazil was the latest example of the genre’s expansion. Orange Rhyming Dictionary was decidedly more buttoned up than anything Jawbreaker had done, but it showed that punk was mutating in ways that brought it closer to indie-rock, effectively building a bridge between the two genres.

The opening of “Crown of the Valley” couldn’t help but feel like a pointed gesture, as effects-coated guitars sprawled across Daly’s mid-tempo beat. It was a deliberate move, one that was meant to cause punk purists to recoil in disgust at the distortion-free guitars and warm, open chords. Though it had hooks in its own right, “Crown of the Valley” was muted in a way that felt miles away from the overt poppiness of the members’ previous output. It was a full embrace of indie-rock, itself a genre going through a boom period, but one that never fully overlapped with punk. There were flirtations between the two, both in their machinations and ideologies, but Jets To Brazil utilised the indie rock sound as a weapon against punk’s stratified templates.

Throughout Orange Rhyming Dictionary, Schwarzenbach shifted his lyrical focus away from the topics Jawbreaker was known for. While his old band doled out great love songs, or perhaps lack-of-love songs, Jets To Brazil only treaded lightly on those topics. For the most part, Schwarzenbach was exploring subjects that disconnected him from the centre of the stories, but there were flashes of him that would occasionally come into focus. In many ways, Orange Rhyming Dictionary felt like Schwarzenbach trying to figure out who he was if not the singer of a band that people couldn’t help but care so deeply about. “It's the only thing that's halfway mine and not for your prying or lying eyes,” he sang on “Crown of the Valley,” telegraphing lines that would follow on “Morning New Disease”: “I am dreaming of a life and it’s not the life that’s mine.”

But elsewhere, his focus was on privacy and the lack thereof. While some of it sounds a bit quaint, like the hamfisted “For your protection, we’ve installed this camera” on “Morning New Disease,” he stumbled only occasionally. And with Daly and Chatelain backing him, the band sounded confident, able to play with a kind of U2-indebted sprawl that would serve the songs better than they had any right to. It’s fitting that the songs they wrote together that most effectively channeled their pasts, “After Hour Perfection” and “Got No Crew,” would never get recorded, relegated to lo-fi bootleg status to this day.

At its core, Orange Rhyming Dictionary was an album that saw Schwarzenbach trying to reclaim his humanity. “Starry Configuration,” “Chinatown,” and “I Typed For Miles” were all treatises on how much is owed to others, be it family, consumers, or society at large, and how that saps a person until there’s almost nothing left. In the case of “I Typed For Miles,” which set a scene that, if not inspired by the Coen brothers’ 1991 masterwork Barton Fink, certainly ran parallel to it, Schwarzenbach saw his creative impulses not as a release but an obligation. There was something owed to someone else, and every word he wrote was for an audience that was quick to tell him that wasn’t what they wanted. It’s why, at the song’s peak, he broke the fourth wall, screaming, “You keep fucking up my life” over and over, a declaration pointed in every direction, including back at himself.

It’s why, when “Sweet Avenue” kicked in to close the record, with its loping leads and saccharine subject matter, it couldn’t help but feel like Schwarzenbach had earned that simple joy. After spending years in the eye of a storm, and the entirety of Orange Rhyming Dictionary attempting to make peace with his past and his current self, he was finally able to stop and smell the flowers – quite literally. It was proof that, after years of writing love songs with Jawbreaker, those stakes were brought down a bit and he could finally have his music match the effervescence of his lyrics instead of wrapping them in jagged power chords.

Surely, Orange Rhyming Dictionary had as many detractors as it did fans, but the public’s curiosity certainly showed. Jade Tree owner Darren Walters claims it was the label’s best-selling album of all time, and for every punk who threw their copy in the trash, another found a path forward. While it’d be hard to pinpoint bands that took anything directly from Jets To Brazil, as they themselves were pulling liberally from both indie and alt-rock, it became easier to see other emo bands use the band as a blueprint for their way out. Jimmy Eat World’s Futures pulled from the Jets’ playbook, and as acts like Motion City Soundtrack aged out of their energetic early days, they certainly took a cue or two. And of course there was Jets To Brazil’s one-time tourmates in The Promise Ring, who made a record of pure Beatles worship on 2002’s Wood/Water, an album that would feel like a spiritual cousin of the Jets’ catalog.

As the years wore on, and guitarist Brian Maryansky, formerly of The Van Pelt, joined the band (though he toured with them in support of Orange Rhyming Dictionary), Jets To Brazil would skew further away from their shared pedigree. 2000’s Four Cornered Night saw Schwarzenbach sit at the piano far more than ever before, and 2002’s Perfecting Loneliness was their attempt to make a big, ambitious rock album. Those records would provide people with plenty more mud to sling, but in hindsight, they each achieved their intended goals of feeling tonally and conceptually singular by never concerning themselves with what anyone outside the band had to say.

Perhaps that’s what Orange Rhyming Dictionary’s true legacy has become. As an album, it was never meant to be a concise collection of songs but instead an open embrace of the creative wanderings that artists so often talk themselves out of. After being limited for years, Jets To Brazil was able to open themselves up to a world where punk could no longer be so easily classified. Though they’d never get spoken of in the same rarified space as their previous acts, they established a space for themselves, making good on punk’s initial promise when so few others dared to.

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.