Fugazi, it could be argued, is responsible for the shape of American punk music as much as, if not more than, any other. There are seminal bands like Sonic Youth that certainly can't be denied, but when you open the dictionary and look up punk, you're more likely to see Fugazi there more than anyone else. This is a band that took the simple sounds of punk (a la Minor Threat ) and turned it into a more musically challenging and interesting art form. They invented post-punk, essentially. A more mature and stylistic form of power-driven music where the lyrics were still the most important thing.

And they cultivated this sound not only with their own music but with the music they released on their labels. Bands like Slant 6, Shudder To Think, and Autoclave all came through the Dischord Records doors.

And there was a band called Government Issue that showed up in 1981 and featured at one point, among other folks, a fellow by the name of J. Robbins. G.I. was, for the most part, only a step away from pure punk. The music was good but not that complex, and the first rule of punk -- that knowing how to play an instrument was not a requirement for being a musician -- still cast its shadow in some respects. The band was good and had some power, but playing something with style was something that, like most of the other bands of the day, wasn't as important as the message.

In 1989 Robbins broke off from G.I. and started Jawbox. He switched from bass to guitar and got some friends (Adam Wade and Kim Coletta) to join in and they released their first album, Grippe (1991). Grippe is a clever album, with lots of twists and turns and remarkable songs but comes off a little forced. The heart is there and the energy is right, but the songs don't seem to flow just right.

Over the course of the next year they added another guitarist, Barbot, and the sound and style filled out into a more decorated yet tight ensemble. The songwriting improved. 1992 saw the release of Novelty, still nostalgically viewed by many as their best release. Its songs have energy and power and are all well-written, but the recording itself hides the fact that there are two guitarists most of the time. Still, an excellent release.

Shortly after its release, drummer Adam Wade left the band to join fellow D.C.-ers Shudder to Think and the band brought on Boracas who had recently moved from NYC to DC and was rooming with Kim. Though he was reluctant to join the band (though Jawbox was one of his favorites, he had moved to DC to attend school and did not welcome the distraction), his induction proved to be the secret ingredient that the band needed. What followed is self-described by the band as a freakish "mystical communication" in which their songwriting flourished.

Right about this time the whole Seattle grunge thing happened and all the majors went shopping for their own college rock sound. Atlantic came knocking on the band's door and they eventually acquiesced, but only after getting a few things the way they wanted them. Up until then the band had been completely autonomous and leaving Dischord Records (they were the first to do so) was about as un-punk as you could get. But they wanted to be able to dedicate themselves full-time to the band and to reach more than just the states to which they could drive when they were on tour.

Most of For Your Own Special Sweetheart was written before they signed to Atlantic, but the time they could now spend in the studio along with a seasoned veteran at the mixing table meant that the excellent songs got the treatment they deserved and the album, released in '94, was a whole new territory for them. The songs themselves were a product of the whole band's maturity, but especially the influences of Boracas, who brought a jazz-like sense of time to the table, made a huge impact. This was no longer punk. If Fugazi invented post-punk, Jawbox turned it into something more refined. Though they caught some flak from their diehard punk fans for leaving Dischord, those who heard the album knew that the band's creativity had not been dimmed by the move.

Two years and a hell of a lot of touring later came their fourth and final release, simply entitled Jawbox. I like this album the best but will concede to those who think the songs are better on Sweetheart. Sweetheart has that flavor of someone who's just found new ground to break and is enjoying the experience. Jawbox is the voice of someone who has made a home out of a desert island and lived there for a while. This is their territory. They know where the water starts and how tall the trees are. They have it down. This is a band that has been on tour for two years and knows how each other thinks. The songs here are more refined but less daring.

Despite their brilliance, both of these albums did poorly by major label standards. They did well in the indie community but failed to get much further. Consequently, Atlantic dropped them. This on top of a lot of other factors (the most important of which was Boracas' decision to return to NYC to go to film school) brought the band to its end. They disbanded and moved on. Bill and Kim, who eventually got hitched and had a kid, still run DeSoto -- a well-respected DC indie label. They released My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents, a posthumous Jawbox album of odds and ends and continue to put out great records today. Robbins started up the now unfortunately named Burning Airlines, which is actually on DeSoto. The music is great and if you like Jawbox you're a shoe-in for Burning Airlines. Their first release was tight and incredibly melodic. Their second release reminds me a lot of For Your Own Special Sweetheart though I'm not exactly sure why.

Other suggestions:
Burning Airlines
Shudder To Think
Girls Against Boys
Husker Du
The Dismemberment Plan