I am a man of limited faith. I have no church or holy book. The little that remains in my memory from a rudimentary high school and university science education explains only a fraction of what happens around me. I also do not feel that my elected officials adequately represent me, nor do I believe in a majority of the actions that are executed on my behalf as an American. There are times, as you can surely understand, when I feel truly disconnected.
Yet somewhere within all of this uncertainty, underneath the confounding invisibility of forces beyond my control lies a very clear and tangible reality. It is the convergence of aesthetics and belief that I find in music; for me the place where I connect not only to the sounds, but to the people who make it, the other fans who enjoy it, and the thousands who continue to live it after the lights go on, bands break up and the records get packed away. It can be hip-hop, it can be jazz. It can be the burgeoning world of electronica, it can be rock. For every kid that declares his or her music to be a lifestyle and adopts more than the ubiquitous yet fleeting mantras to 'do it yourself' or 'keep it real,' there is an adult who has kept it true to heart and head and has forever been affected by it. I am positive of this . Because I still feel the same way about Fugazi at 26, as I did at 15. At 40? Well, if they keep evolving like they have on The Argument, I'll keep paying the $10.00.
Here's a quick digression before I get into The Argument. I remember watching 'Like It Is' about four months ago on a hung-over Sunday morning. The New York Hip-Hop Summit had just taken place and that week's panel consisted of an interesting trio-actor/MC Mos Def, StepSun records head Bill Stephney, and the editor of Essence Magazine Susan Taylor. The subject was independent hip-hop. I remember Bill Stephney, as eloquent and informed a speaker as there is, dropping two names from the rock world as definitive examples of successful independent acts: Ani DiFranco and Fugazi. As disparate as those two entities may be, there is no doubt that Stephney recognized that both have become models of how to maintain creative control in an industry game that all too often decides the fate of it's players. Bill Stephney sees it, and so do thousands of others - from the aging and arthritic skaters who reminisce on Minor Threat; to the young nu-metal convert who will be blasting The Argument from the parking lot of the Family Values Tour. Fugazi is and always will be more than just music.
Yet music, or more specifically the evolution of music, is the driving force behind The Argument, their seventh full-length record (including 13 Songs) since forming in 1987. The sound remains definitively Fugazi - dynamic vocal interplay between Guy Picciotto and Ian Mackaye; flawlessly executed time changes; noisy yet controlled guitar work and the undeniable Lally/Canty rhythm section. Even long-time engineer Don Zientara is captaining the ship from behind the glass. It is enough Fugazi to satisfy fans of any or all of their records: no, Fugazi hasn't become fucking Tortoise. Nor will they ever. But certainly even the most die-hard post-punk purist can concede that a band needs to evolve. That's why we have the complex genealogical trees that start in towns like Chapel Hill, Louisville, or DC. That's why The Offspring are embarrassing. That's why David Grubbs goes from Bastro to graduate school. It may not always be a fruitful evolution but it is inevitable nonetheless.
All Fugazi records sound a little different from one another. The level
of discordant bombast subtly shifted between Steady Diet of Nothing and
In On the Killtaker. The sonic experimentation present on End Hits was
nowhere to be found on Repeater. Maybe you could say The Argument is their
attempt to utilize all of the myriad elements of their sound by isolating
and exploiting each.
The Argument opens with an experimental minute of cello and field recording and then quickly launches into the furious Canty drum cadence introduction to "Cashout." An anti-gentrification opus ending in the haunting lines "Everybody wants somewhere," this first track not only proves that Fugazi remains as politically conscious as always, but that the uncompromising power and energy of their sound will not be corrupted by the infusion of melody. Screams of action are certainly more subdued than on similar past efforts, substituting the coarse commands to change with the powerful intelligence of indirect suggestion. Yet for Fugazi, the point is still obvious.
"Full Disclosure," the third track on The Argument may be the most glaring example of Fugazi's new production direction. It begins unassumingly with a typically relentless guitar storm over a superb rhythmic backbone from bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty. Could be something from Repeater. Yet as soon as you unbend from the expectation of something drastically different (because that's what you heard, right?) they do it - breaking easily into the most melodic stretch of Fugazi song I've heard them undertake. It works beautifully.
Perhaps the strongest track on the record, "Epic Problem" incorporates the full range of talents veteran DC producer Don Zientara (Dag Nasty, Jawbox, Dismemberment Plan) brings to the studio. It represents what would most sensibly fit as a single, and probably least liked by fans for the same reason. (Snobby motherfuckers who wince when "Waiting Room" is played at the bar, you know who you are and you should hide your eyes.) Mackaye, shouting his sarcastic and indignant observations, hasn't been this good since "Nice New Outfit." The track shifts to one of the hardest (and tightest) choruses I've heard Fugazi write, with a contemporary force and technique reminiscent of Hot Water Music or Blue Tip. It's just fucking good and serves as a reminder to the skeptical 28-year-old that he hasn't yet become a tired, aging man.
I refuse to continue this review by progressing from track by track, summarizing the songs, hinting at the parts that fancied this one particular perspective. If a Fugazi record begins well, you can bet that it ends just as perfectly. I assure you that as a fan, The Argument has yet again placed Fugazi at the forefront of a musical movement started nearly 15 years ago. For those that crave a message behind their music, this record addresses the leftward leanings of past Fugazi lyricism by tackling globalization, militarism, and gentrification. Check the chillingly current relevance of some of the lyrics in the album's self-titled closer- "when they start falling/executions will commence," "when people are catching what bombers release/I'm on a mission to never agree." The band's message of pacifism holds an even greater significance.
Yet for all of the moving images forced into our consciousness by Mackaye and Picciotto, the most riveting elements of The Argument lie in it's music; within the product of the work of four men who have become, perhaps against their own wills, the guiding light of reluctant legend. Perhaps it is something that even those of little faith can believe in.-- Steve Marchese