[22 July 2011]
Here’s a not-so-secret secret, a fact once triumphed and now brushed under the synth-topped table: Fugazi is the best band of the last two decades. The post-hardcore (read: rock music) quartet formed in 1987, released seven absolutely peerless records, and put its hometown of Washington, DC, on the musical map. Fugazi became known equally—if not even more famously—for its politics, as its songs, with a relentless DIY ethic demanding $5 (or free) all-ages shows, $10 records (printed by co-leader Ian MacKaye’s own Dischord label), and a refusal to print any merchandise (lest it detract from the real product, the music). They don’t make them like that anymore. But the group’s music—revolutionary music, in the political and cultural sense—often gets lost in the mythologizing about Fugazi’s ethos. The group blended guitar-driven aggression, dance floor rhythms, a surprisingly nuanced sense of melody, and a sense for musical dynamics that would make your dad’s favorite composers proud—and they did it better than anyone before or since.
MacKaye remains the band’s de facto leader and its most famous member, the founder of Dischord Records and the equally seminal Minor Threat. MacKaye has also remained the most public figure of his former bandmates in the post-Fugazi years, releasing two excellent albums with the Evens, his band with partner Amy Farina. Fugazi’s other vocalist/guitarist (and the center of the band’s legendary, peerless live shows), Guy Picciotto has remained almost shockingly silent, doing production work here and there (Gossip, Blonde Redhead, Blood Brothers) and popping up on a few of the late Vic Chesnutt’s records. Drummer (and secret, weapons-grade multi-instrumentalist) Brendan Canty does soundtrack and film work. That leaves Joe Lally, Fugazi’s bassist, he of the impossibly nimble fingers and preternatural grooves.
Lally fronted the occasional Fugazi track—“The Kill”, “By You”—but it may still surprise fans of the group to find he’s been the most prolific of the four ex-Fugazi members since the group’s dissolution. Besides collaborations with the bands Decahedron and Ataxia, Lally has recorded and toured behind two solo records. His third, Why Should I Get Used to It, sees him refining his melodic chops and exploring new textures in his gentle, clear voice. More eclectic and fully-fleshed than his previous solo albums, Why Should I Get Used to It deserves more attention than Lally’s work has received in the past.
Guitarist Elisa Abela and drummer Emanuele Tomasi know how to weave in and around Lally’s grooves, providing melodic counterpoints and beefing up his songs when necessary, as on fuzzed-out rocker “What Makes You” and the spiky “Nothing to Lose”. On the latter, Abela’s busy guitar wails and drones while Lally and Tomasi keep the song’s rhythmic bedrock airtight. Lally takes center stage on other tracks, like the slowburning “Fort Campbell, KY” and “Ministry of the Interior”, where he uses his bass to etch out a melody as strong and forward as any written on a guitar. Still, Why Should I Get Used to It sounds like a full band effort, not the work of one solo musician accompanied by some friends. It’s a cohesive and layered statement, and a successful one, to boot.
Take “Last of the Civilized”, for example. Lally lays down a cyclical, intuitive groove, while Tomasi drums with quiet freneticism and Abela plays with soft-loud dynamics. Anchoring it all is Lally’s croon, an easy tenor that belies his vaguely political, ambiguously unsettling lyrics (“It has not passed / It is passing”). Lally’s not the lyricist that MacKaye or Picciotto became over Fugazi’s long career, but he knows to keep things indirect enough to allow for interpretation, rather than shoot for clunky political sloganeering. The effect makes Why Should I Get Used to It sound like a quiet call to arms, but the target could just as easily be external as internal.
The logical final question about this record, and the one that will plague Lally and all of his former bandmaters for the rest of their careers, is how these songs stack up next to Fugazi’s. It’s an unfair comparison—this is an independent body of work, meant to be taken on its own terms—but an understandable one. So, about those comparisons: Lally’s basswork remains as deft as ever, and his rhythms and melodies are on par with his work in his more famous band. If anything, Why Should I Get Used to It sounds most like End Hits or Red Medicine Fugazi—willing to experiment with song structures, restless, soft-loud, balancing introspection with forcefulness. In other words, it’s well worth a listen.