The Up On In – Steps to the Light

Label: Big Top Records

Produced by: J. Robbins

Oh, hm, the drummer from Jawbox? Yeah, no thanks. Jawbox – like a lot of 90s Discord – sits in this range of arty punk that I should like, based on influences and descriptions, but have never gotten into, and the recommendation for The Up On In came from a dude who was all about dat emo music (or so I thought), which I also had whatever-reason biases against, and into which pile I also connected Jawbox, and thus drummer Zach Barocas, and, so… no thanks. But we had a cutout bin at Tower Records, and there were – sorry, Zach – always copies of this disc in there, so eventually, I got nudged into an “it’s only X bucks” purchase, and checked it out.

I nodded with approval. While this wasn’t exactly the Don Cab kinda complexity / heft that triggered the recommendation, the album had an undeniable groove, and started to fill in a jazzy sound that was lacking in my collection. It’s a very easy listening affair, and one I’d return to more often than I realize.

In returning to it now, for review, and with many years distance on it, my ears are quite surprised: yes, that chill blue-colored strip of fretboards and friendly font on the cover, and the kinda chillax song titles, and the first few opening cuts are very jazz suggestive / influenced, but as you go deeper into the disc… Steps to the Light is insanely complexed, and builds, over its 14 tracks, to some really heavy, pummeling material, kinda made all the more impactful by the way it holds on to its swagger throughout – the punk rock just punches through, sharply performed by the trio (Barocas; bassist Charlie Bennett; guitarist Ryan Grayson), and given crisp production snap by – of course – J. Robbins. The album rather purposefully starts out in laidback territory to make this work, which is why it can come across with that easy-listening vibe: it is very easy to listen to, as it’s precisely formed to keep loosening the listener up to more and more obtuse and aggressive works. While the group may never tear out with sudden distorted rawness and breakdowns, the way it subtly shifts along the way from jams to more direct rocking out moments is very powerful, and each of our musicians snakes around one another effortlessly, giving room to shine, but never being showy.

That, again, is the key, and the secret trick of this disc: it’s not Don Cab; it’s not the flashy instrumental act who blows you away with a drum or guitar solo. The build and support concept of jazz is at work here, shot through with a punkish forward momentum that announces itself through an undercurrent of restlessness, more and more as it goes on.

And I suppose, similarly, as the years have gone on and I’ve given this disc more and more time, I keep appreciating it all the more. And on this go-round, I’m rather blown away – this is one of the most solid, repeatable, consistently rewarding instrumental discs in my collection, and I’m glad I wasn’t such a cheap-ass to pass up that used copy however many years ago.