Until now, every Ian MacKaye project has been a logical extension of the previous one. With the Teen Idles, he set an early template for hardcore music, then went on to perfect it Minor Threat. From there he began to create a more expansive, post-hardcore sound with Fugazi. Each Fugazi record presented a further progression and MacKaye’s guitar work improved incrementally with each release, as did his songwriting. The last Fugazi album, 2001’s The Argument, even found him cautiously incorporating melody into his songs.
His latest project, though, is a folk-rock duo featuring former Warmers drummer Amy Farina, and it couldn’t sound much more different than anything he’s done before. Completely gone is the hardcore sound that’s been, to some extent, at the foundation of everything MacKaye has recorded over the past 25 years. No more furious, angular guitar; no more feedback; no more guttural shouts. Just about the only thing MacKaye’s taken with him from his Fugazi days is that newfound sense of melody he mastered on The Argument.
And, sadly, it doesn’t sound quite as refreshing this time around.
MacKaye’s harmonies worked on The Argument because they provided occasional relief from the prevailing dissonance. Without that dissonance, though, they’re far less exciting, especially since here they’re sung by Farina and MacKaye with such unwavering exuberance and with so little restraint that they often become downright grating. MacKaye may have more vocal range than many would expect, and Farina’s contributions are often pretty, but both singers’ voices are ultimately too thin for what they’re trying to accomplish.
Thankfully, the two are better musicians than vocalists. Through repetition, MacKaye’s baritone guitar crafts a hypnotic, textured sound and willingly takes a backseat to Farina’s wildly imaginative drum work. With Farina in charge, tempos speed up and slow down unexpectedly; songs start and stop; post-rock drum patterns are introduced and then abandoned in favor of a harder-hitting beat. On tracks like “Sara Lee” and “Until They’re Clear”, Farina uses melancholy, vaguely tribal percussion that sets the mood better than any minor guitar chord ever could. On other songs, like “Around the Corner” and “Blessed Note Lucky”, she lays down a rapid, bouncy beat that MacKaye complements with some loose, jangly guitar riffs.
The chemistry between the two is undeniable, but the format is more suited to Farina’s strengths than MacKaye’s. MacKaye excels in intensity, not pleasantness, and when trapped in a setting that doesn’t allow him to shout he just sounds neutered. And even his longtime fans—the straight-edge protest kids for whom everything MacKaye preaches is the gospel—will be disappointed by the album’s uninspired lyrics. Fugazi’s best songs made strong political stances by humanizing injustice. “Suggestion”, for instance, was a first-person account of sexual harassment from the woman’s view; “Cashout” was a narrative about a family rendered homeless by development. Yet, despite The Evens‘s more intimate format, MacKaye never puts much of a human spin, let alone a personal one, on these lyrics. Two of the album’s best tracks, “Shelter Two” and “Blessed Not Lucky”, do document the infatuation stages of a relationship, but they stand out like a Danielle Steel novel on a bookshelf otherwise dominated by Marx and Chomsky.
For the most part, MacKaye sticks to delivering the usual, vague warnings about capitalism (“On the Face of It”); corrupt politicians who block promising legislation (“All These Governors”); and modern-day propaganda ministers (“You Won’t Feel a Thing”). Fugazi might have turned the latter song’s simple declarations of “They’ll beat you with the truth so you won’t feel the lies” into a rollicking anthem that would have punks storming the Capitol in outrage. Unsurprisingly, though, such sloganeering just isn’t as convincing when gently cooed as it is when hollered directly into your ear drums.