Back around 1998 or so, I remember going to a small-town coffee house and listening to small-town teenagers play popular alternative songs on acoustic guitars. It was my favorite thing to do, actually, because I’d get a chance to perform my own music, but that meant sitting through lots of other musicians (and let me just say, “Wonderwall” was played on more than one occasion). I remember one dude that invariably played a decent acoustic cover of “Lightning Crashes” every week. One week as he got up to play the song, my buddy Neil whispered to me, “Here comes Lockjaw” – a pretty apt description of the teeth-clenched, gritty vocal style that characterized so much ’90s alternative music, and that nickname has stuck with me ever since.
If you don’t remember or can’t envision what vocal style I’m talking about, maybe this video will remind you.
Since I’ve never heard anyone else call it Lockjaw I’m going to assume Neil just made that up. It’s a pity it didn’t catch on, and now that the style is out of fashion I guess we’ll never get a chance to really use the term Lockjaw again. In fact, Lockjaw was so pervasive in the mid-to-late ’90s and even into the ’00s that I’m sure lots of teenagers growing up during those times assumed that that’s just how rock musicians sing.
I would have to take issue with the MadTV parody though, inasmuch as I think it was really James Hetfield who brought Lockjaw into our collective musical experience (the reference to Ray Charles, I think, is a stretch). Unless you’re a fan of Nickelback, a band that is now undoubtedly to alternative rock what ’80s Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe was to progressive rock, Lockjaw is pretty much dead. And really, good riddance. I think it outstayed its welcome and looking back, by around 2004, as soon as you heard the first Lockjaw tones out of a singer you could expect them but now that it’s only ten or fifteen years away from its inevitable ironic resurgence among insufferable hipsters, perhaps we can reminisce about it. How about some of my Lockjaw guilty (and not so guilty) pleasures.
First, as I said before, I love James Hetfield’s voice. Here’s my favorite Lockjaw song, hands-down:
I realize the next two examples may be committing street cred suicide for me, but I actually think one of my favorite Lockjaw singers is Shaun Morgan from Seether, a band I pretty much don’t listen to, though I like this cover:
One singer that I think followed in the Lockjaw tradition but really had his own thing going was David Draiman from Disturbed. I used to dismiss them as a quirky yet derivative child of alt metal (in fact, they were very, very often the first target of my Lockjaw ridicule), but in hindsight perhaps I was a bit unfair. I think that the combination of Draiman’s punctuated vocals and ability to really express catchy hooks set their sound apart from the other bands in that vein. And from what I heard, their last album was a bit more progressive than their previous releases. I admit, I don’t listen to these guys much either, but I think they’re less deserving of my scorn than I used to think:
Lockjaw isn’t just an alt rock thing. Here’s a Southern Rock version, courtesy of Black Stone Cherry. Unlike that Disturbed tune, I love this song and listen to it pretty often:
So what do you think? Am I stretching the definition of Lockjaw with these examples? Are you glad Lockjaw is dead or do you long for a revival? Any favorites or examples of your own?