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CD Reviews: 19 Wheels
19 Wheels: Jawbreaker
March 2004
By: Matt Boltz
album cover of 19 Wheels' Jawbreaker

Michigan-based rockers 19 Wheels would have been hard pressed to find a better name for their latest release than the title upon which they settled, Jawbreaker. Those familiar with the band's previous release, Sugareen, may notice the candy-related theme. And while Jawbreaker is in many spots as sweet sounding as its predecessor, it also packs a pretty strong punch and is full of hooks, as the album's cover art implies.

It must be unbelievably tempting for an independent band with a predominantly localized fan base to abandon their musical values and beliefs in favor of those which they feel will win over the major labels, much like an eager guy might change his tastes in hopes of capturing a girl's attention. With Jawbreaker, 19 Wheels has not only created an album that deserves to win them the attention of major labels, but they have done so by growing as a band, pushing themselves in new musical directions, and taking the time to perfect the album's ten songs into an end product in which they believe. Jawbreaker is not an easy album to categorize; it combines several elements of pop and rock, yet eludes complete categorization in either of those genres. In a nutshell, Jawbreaker is an album that rocks in many places, is purposely restrained in others, and is catchy throughout. Regardless of whether one wants to label individual songs as pop, rock, or something else, the emphasis on songwriting is very apparent throughout the album as songwriters Chris Johnston (vocals/guitar), Scott Owens (guitar/vocals/keyboards), Donny Brown (producer), and Tim Marzorati (bass/vocals) left no stone unturned to achieve their desired sound.

Live, 19 Wheels uses a standard attack of bass, drums, and two guitars. In the studio, however, the band seems to be open to just about anything that will help bring their songwriting visions to life. Jawbreaker features some pretty diverse instrumentation, illustrating not only the band's willingness to venture onto different musical ground, but also the growth and progression of their songwriting and musicianship. Owens and Johnston provide a two-guitar assault that uses a wide variety of guitar effects and tones including clean verses, distorted choruses, acoustic guitars, and keyboard-like solos. Keyboards and strings are also used in many places throughout the album, adding a unique flavor to the songs and providing a nice complement to the guitars, bass, and drums. Rob Dickey's impressive drumming and Marzorati's bass talents are featured throughout the album, with both musicians receiving ample opportunities to display their skills and add their distinct touches to the songs. Johnston's rhythm guitar meshes well with Owens's lead parts; the two blend their guitars without overshadowing each other and each balances the other's playing nicely. Owens is a very talented guitarist who is a master of playing the right part for the song--- while he has the talent to play frequent solos, he only does so when appropriate for the song.

One of the many bright spots on Jawbreaker is the consistency and quality of the vocals. The band has been praised often for Johnston's vocal abilities, which are every bit as good live as they are in the studio. The vocals are smooth, strong, consistent, and passionate throughout Jawbreaker, with Johnston pushing himself to his best collective vocal performance to date. The vocal melodies Johnston uses throughout the album play an integral role in defining the songs and giving them distinct personalities. His range is impressive, as is his use of dynamics within the songs. Johnston does equally well at singing quietly, loudly, quickly, and slowly, with his voice exuding strength and control throughout. Johnston does not need studio effects to make his voice sound better or stronger than it actually is; anyone who has seen the band live knows that he is capable of holding notes in songs like (The Best of) Juliet and Are You Happy? every bit as long, if not longer, onstage as he does on the album. While many bands would be content using only Johnston's capable voice, 19 Wheels often takes the vocal aspect of their music a step further. Owens, Marzorati, and Dickey are all adept singers, and each contributes a great deal to the many vocal harmonies present on the record. Krista Johnston lends her vocal experience beautifully on I Want You Here while producer Donny Brown, himself a talented vocalist, also contributes to Jawbreaker's backup vocals.

19 Wheels has honed their musical chops, songwriting ability, and live show without the benefit of major label support. Jawbreaker's production, music, and artwork belie this fact, rivaling those of any major label release. By doing things themselves, 19 Wheels was able to make the album exactly how they wanted and at their own pace--- any pressures they faced while making the album were imposed by themselves, not by a corporation controlling their image, finances, marketing, and musical direction. Though making albums and lining up shows independently are more challenging and difficult than doing so with the backing of a label, 19 Wheels has had a great deal of help from dedicated supporters. The band has a tight inner circle of very supportive fans who have helped them during the last few years and contributed to the making of Jawbreaker. Fans help with merchandise, website design, photography, and, perhaps most importantly, by faithfully attending the band's shows and bringing in new fans via word of mouth. This solid fan base and support system allow 19 Wheels to spend more time focusing on the music and growing as a band than many regional bands are afforded. The band is wise enough to make the most of their fans' support, and that wisdom shows in the finished product. Jawbreaker is an album of which the band and its fans should be proud, with or without the support of major labels. If you're looking for an album full of catchy rock and roll music that sounds vaguely familiar yet not quite like anything currently on the radio, you should go all ten rounds with Jawbreaker.