D.C. post-punk hero and Magpie Cage Studios producer J. Robbins has put together an acoustic EP that maintains the intensity of his hallowed work with Jawbox and Burning Airlines. No Starbucks-friendly hushed vocals or slowed-down strumming here, just J.’s signature, super-sincere bleat, backed by less-busied sounds (cello, acoustic guitar, and a keyboard mostly aping piano) than you’re used to hearing. Lou Reed ‘Street Hassle’-style cello nervously swings through Burning Airlines’ ‘Aviary’ while a similarly edgy though far less fervid arrangement assists the frustrated ‘Spoiler,’ a Jawbox classic (the group’s B-side ‘68’ also appears), here drained of its anthemic qualities and actually more seething as a result. Pissed-off strums of guitar act more like a percussive device on ‘Lorelei’ (originally by J.’s new-ish band, The Office of Future Plans, also represented by ‘Salamander’), allowing cello to gently move the melody around and J. to gorgeously sing along.
The new song here, ‘Abandoned Mansions,’ is also the best, in this format at least. Something like a protest song (with liberal quotes from Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The City In The Sea’), it is as sad for the state of the world as it is angry, a worldly wise adjustment to the expected raging troubadourism. The effect of “Abandoned Mansions EP” is little bit like 2010’s “Undressed” from Future Islands, in which acoustic takes don’t so much interact with far-more-familiar versions of these cult “hits” as they do pick them up and move them somewhere else, uncovering an emotional complexity almost entirely different from the originals. It’s as if Robbins has fully grown into his mature punk frustration and picked up even more empathy along the way.