J. Robbins (formerly of Jawbox and Burning Airlines) has his fingerprints on so many projects I like – and even more I like that, until recently, I never knew he took part in (namely, production and mixing on Maritime’s Glass Floor and Jets to Brazil albums). His resume, particularly on the production end, is extensive.
Like his writing in Burning Airlines, Robbins straddles a line of paranoia with Channels that leaves you edgy and uncomfortable, a trait he shares with Jets to Brazil frontman Blake Schwarzenbach (see also, Orange Rhyming Dictionary). Robbins doesn’t meddle in the ways of love and heartbreak; his songs are the soundtrack to media and government fearmongering.
To the New Mandarins, the opener on Waiting for the Next, sets the tone of his dread laced throughout the album:
“new mandarins, your color-coded bulletins /
are doing my poor head in /
while you place bets on what I’m most dreading /
so well-informed, I don’t know where the truth begins /
I grew up on science fiction /
that doesn’t mean I want to live in it”
Robbins is a protest writer in a more indirect sense, in the way Blade Runner and THX 1138 envision a dehumanized society. Paranoia drives Robbins, and that makes him compelling: misinformation, Big Brother, technophobia. He’s asking you to think about this for yourself and consider the consequences.
Burning Airlines’ Mission: Control! (1999) clocked me over the head when I first heard it after graduating from college. (Looking back, the band’s name even seems eerily prophetic; Robbins almost changed the band name.) I didn’t know what to make of these lyrics and ideas: “The medicine show comes around / to peddle a prescription now / to medicate mistrust of crowds.” Whoa, whoa. This wasn’t about missing your girlfriend or feeling homesick anymore. For me, Robbins was expanding what songwriting could be – an expression of fear or concern in a way not related to mopey love.
Channels carries the tradition, even if the post-punk musical styling feels dated. Though I’d argue that the unnerving guitars and Robbins’ ever-so-slightly distorted vocals contribute to the message in the writing.