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J. Robbins has been a part of some fantastic records over the years, but none sounds as richly realized as Office of Future Plans, the debut of his new band of the same name. And it’s not just because there’s a full-time cellist.
The album isn’t exactly lush in the indulgent-rock-star sense, but Robbins uncoils his post-hardcore songwriting a bit, further embraces his innate tunefulness, and commits to a depth of production that Dave Grohl or Bob Mould would be happy with. Of course, Robbins was headed that way already—Waiting For The Next End Of the World, the 2006 album by his band Channels, was obviously the work of a pro—but it’s a joy to hear him keep pushing.
“Push” might be the wrong verb, though; if anything, Office of Future Plans sounds like it came naturally. Drummer Darren Zentek (Channels, Kerosene 454) is at his best here, playing with customary muscle but displaying uncommon touch when the arrangements require it. (He’s the unexpected star, for instance, of the slow-building intro to “You’re Not Alone.”) Within Zentek’s beats, bassist/multi-instrumentalist Brooks Harlan (Avec, War on Women) is both forceful and economical.
Robbins, meanwhile, sings and plays guitar as if the 12 songs—most of which focus on personal and political identity, a favorite theme since his Jawbox days—matter as much as anything he’s ever done. The jaunty “Your Several Selves,” for instance, skewers the idea of a super-social life; when Robbins gets to the line, “Fuck the antiquated dream of a quiet mind/Let minutiae burn your eyes until you’re blind,” he holds the last word in a way that’s funny, a little bitter, and totally self-aware. He’s still got some political scorchers in him, too: “FEMA Coffins” (“Hello cryptofascists/Hello wailing 1 percent/Yeah, I love more the crazier you get”) is a surging, two-minute showstopper; “The Loyal Opposition” and “The Beautiful Barricades” are nearly as propulsive; and the rumbling “Ambitious Wrists” would fit on any of his Burning Airlines albums.
And then there’s the cellist, Gordon Withers. Cello is always a sketchy proposition in punk-related music, if only because its emotional palette is so broad. In Office of Future Plans, though, the big-bodied instrument is essential. Withers’ playing is always cleverly integrated with the rest of the group’s timbres, and on some songs (notably “Ambitious Wrists”), it’s an important rhythmic element. When Withers is called upon to provide something more sensuous (notably on “You’re Not Alone”), he’s perfectly restrained.
To top it all off, Office of Future Plans ends with Robbins’ weirdest song to date, “Riddle Me This,” a midtempo meditation on materialism and economics (“Who do we pay?/Who’s the croupier?”) that loops a banjo riff with snippets of piano, strings, electric guitar, and synths. During the bridge, his vocals do a double-time, Tin Pan Alley kind of thing, as if there’s a slick musical bubbling not too far away in his cranium. Yeah, hell, he probably could write one.