Music News

Burning, Man

Alex Chilton did it, and so did Henry Rollins. Todd Rundgren was able to do it for a little while. John Cale did it early on, then stopped. Brian Eno did it -- did he ever -- with style and class.

What we're talking about here is the process by which an artist mounts Stage One of a career, achieving recognition on the strength of solo or group work, and then segues into Stage Two: moving behind the boards (or the pages, in Rollins' case) to assist younger, unknown artists in building their credentials. But then comes Stage Three, which consists of stepping back into the public eye and finding out whether your time away has (a) concentrated and/or refined your strengths, or (b) left you wondering what the hell happened to the music world while you were out of the room.

J. Robbins, guitar powerhouse behind hard-core outfits Government Issue and Jawbox, is now firmly ensconced in that latter stage, for good or ill. And having manned the knobs for young bruisers like Bluetip and the Dismemberment Plan, all of whom hosanna Robbins' music to the skies, seems to have helped him coalesce his own ideas concerning Burning Airlines, his latest group project.

Formed initially from the ashes of Jawbox, Robbins is now the only member of Burning Airlines with a prior history in that band. Whereas Mission: Control!, BA's first album, was almost half composed of songs written for Jawbox, Identikit (De Soto), released in March of this year, was a brand-new project from the wheels up. It's sure as hell not a hard-core album, and it's not really power-pop, either, though that neologism gets bandied about a great deal. What it's more like is the sound of a maturing punk.

That's not an insult. Other "mature punks" from world history include labor activist Mother Jones, historian Howard Zinn, Woody Guthrie, and Mohandas Gandhi. But the point is, no matter what your milieu, if you've any kind of creative energy at all, you can only thrash and burn for so long before you want to build something. Tossing bricks eventually gives way to stacking them.

That, it seems, is where Robbins' mid-30s head is these days. Most of the songs on Identikit aren't soft or accommodating, but neither are they screechy and alienating. "What's the price to fly in a cage of wire?" Robbins sings on "Outside the Aviary"; "Boys spin by on a mobile inside her knowing ambivalent mind." His voice is full-forward in the mix (a welcome change from previous releases), reminding us that Robbins has sometimes been jibed by the hard-core punk press for his verbose lyrics. But the sound of complicated ideas slithering through Identikit's hooky melodies is exactly what's attractive about it. From jazz arrangements to tone poems, Robbins and Co. cast about in all directions, coming up winners nearly every time.