It would have been an understatement to say that Fucked Up were the underdogs going into last year’s Polaris Music Prize. And yet, there they were at the close of the awards ceremony, holding up a comically oversized check with “FUCKED UP” writ large on the front, to the amazement of all in attendance. Rare is the day that a hardcore band receives widespread critical attention, especially when that band has a decidedly less-than-family-friendly name. Fucked Up’s second studio album, The Chemistry of Common Life, however, was simply too good for even the mainstream to ignore. In the year since its release, the band has been the subject of near universal acclaim, was featured as a repeat performer on Canada’s MTV Live after supposedly being banned from the network (the band reciprocated by inciting fans to destroy a bathroom) and hosted an epic, 12-hour-long set at a Lower East Side gallery, featuring members of Les Savy Fav, Dinosaur Jr. and Vampire Weekend. Perhaps most unlikely of all, frontman Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham has recently become a regular guest on the Fox News program “Red Eye”. Clearly, it’s high time for a victory lap.
In advance of a U.S. tour that will culminate in a SXSW showcase organized and curated by the band, Fucked Up has released the singles collection Couple Tracks. The title is, of course, a misnomer: Couple Tracks consists of 25 songs spread across two discs. Given the band’s prolific output and embrace of scarce goods (over 50 releases in eight years, most of which were pressed in limited runs and released on tiny labels), Couple Tracks provides latecomers with a valuable opportunity to get caught up with Fucked Up’s discography without paying eBay prices.
Couple Tracks splits the lot into two categories: “The Hard Stuff” (disc one) and “The Fun Stuff” (disc two). Fittingly, the first disc kicks off with “No Pasarán”, the A-side to the band’s first 7”. Opening with a vow of international solidarity from the Franco-era Republicanos (“no pasarán” being an old wartime slogan meaning “they shall not pass”), the song comes tearing out of the gate, a blistering, two minute statement of purpose that’s as heavy as Black Flag, as fast as Minor Threat and as political as the Dead Kennedys (a sample lyric, delivered by Pink Eyes with all the subtlety of a drill sergeant: “They can bury our bodies / But not our dreams”). It’s one hell of an introduction.
The rest of disc one mines similar territory with fairly consistent success. The slow, plodding “Generation” hints at the band’s coming embrace of atypical percussion, while its B-side, “Ban Violins”, foreshadows the reincarnation imagery that would pop up again on The Chemistry of Common Life (“Born again/Free from sin/Let the suffering/Begin”). Likewise, the layered guitars on “Triumph of Life” chug mightily while presaging the nuanced melodic sensibility that the band would fully explore on later releases. Closing out the first disc, we get two alternate takes of songs from Chemistry: the “fast version” of “No Epiphany” (which still feels like a slow dirge next to most of the other tracks here) and the “video version” of “Crooked Head”, which cuts the song’s nearly six-minute runtime in half.
While the tracks that make up “The Fun Stuff”, most of which are B-sides, feel more casually tossed-off, they also showcase the band at its goofiest and most sonically adventurous. “I Hate Summer” backs up Pink Eyes’ childish grumbling with driving rhythms and a catchy guitar lead that sticks to the upper registers. “Anorak City”, a cover of the first flexidisc from twee-pop legends Another Sunny Day, sounds a bit like the Ramones fronted by Henry Rollins. “Magic World”, meanwhile, is an uncharacteristically loose slice of garage psych, all bluesy riffing and kaleidoscopic, echo-laden vocals. By way of contrast, the minute-long hardcore workout “He’s so Frisky” is musically straightforward, while handily earning its share of cheap laughs (“Voice so heavenly / Fancy sex with me?”, Abraham barks in his trademark gravelly tone). Closing things out, the Daytrotter take of “David Comes to Life” reimagines the Hidden World highlight as a funky, dance-rock jam.
While the songs on Couple Tracks largely shy from the lush, elaborate production that made The Chemistry of Common Life a crossover hit, the early tracks featured here are clearly products of the same band. As is demonstrated on many of these singles, the members of Fucked Up have the conviction and chops to tackle seemingly any sound that strikes their fancy. Couple this with a fearless disregard for credibility (see the band’s charity Christmas singles, which have featured everyone from Nelly Furtado to GZA) and you have a band that seems destined to redraw the boundaries of hardcore. For those searching for clues as to where this band came from or where it might go next, Couple Tracks offers up an attractive proposition indeed.