The Evens: Get Evens

[4 December 2006]

By Michael Keefe

The first thing everyone thinks they need to know about the Evens is that one of the band’s two members is Ian MacKaye, leader of the seminal Washington, DC post-hardcore band Fugazi. Throughout the 1990s, that quartet personified integrity more than any other act, while also rocking pretty damn hard. With classic albums like their debut, Repeater, the Steady Diet of Nothing follow-up in 1991, and 1995’s Red Medicine, Fugazi was one of the most truly intense bands in a decade replete with groups who bartered in melodrama and aped sincerity. With their shrapnel-laced music and MacKaye’s incisive lyrics, Fugazi hot-branded their take-no-crap message onto the hearts and minds of their listeners.

Soon after wrapping up Fugazi, MacKaye started a new band called the Evens. Anyone expecting Fugazi II was in for a shock. First clue: The Evens are a duo, with MacKaye on vocals and baritone guitar and Amy Farina on vocals and drums. Right away, you knew this band would not have the explosive, blistering might of Fugazi. If you bought their 2005 self-titled debut expecting musical catharsis, you were disappointed. At least, at first. It is this defiance of expectations that makes prior knowledge of MacKaye’s presence in the Evens a hindrance to enjoying their music. Lyrically, too, The Evens was much less pointed and angry.

Probably not too many people have come to the Evens as fans of the far less famous Farina. She began her musical career as drummer for Lois (aka, Lois Maffeo or “the Lois”), before departing to help form the Warmers, a noisy, middleweight indie rock trio who released their lone album on Dischord in 1996. Aside from helping out Ted Leo and the Pharmacists on occasion, Farina was out of the scene until she and MacKaye joined together to create the Evens in the fall of 2001.

Now that you know what not to expect from the Evens, let me tell you what you do get. Most impressively, despite the limited tools to which they have restricted themselves, MacKaye and Farina bring a lot of textural variety to their recordings. It turns out, the baritone guitar is quite the versatile weapon. Capable of emulating plucky mid-range bass-lines, standard variety guitar strums, and even some higher register solos, the instrument proves itself a sort of crude analog to the cello, capable of tackling the highs, lows, and in-betweens. And MacKaye makes great use of all of these possibilities, sometimes all on the same track. Farina, too, shows great range on the drum set, finding cool rhythmic grooves on her toms, playing solid pop/rock beats, and orchestrating the nifty breaks that the Evens make good use of in their songs.

Maybe none of this is news to you. You got the first album last year, you delighted in its surprisingly spry and minimalist tunes, and now you’re ready for more of the same. Well, once again, I should warn you against the burdens of preconceptions. While The Evens felt innocent and optimistic, Get Evens finds the band in a more embittered mood. Appropriate to their Washington, DC locale, the new record also finds MacKaye relying heavily on political commentary, returning to the watchdog role he assumed in Fugazi. On this count alone, fans of that old band will find something to latch onto.

Over a brooding, jazzy groove on opener “Cut from the Cloth”, MacKaye growls: “Cynics are excused from standing up to the problems / Because they can’t get up from their own seats.” It’s a compelling song with forceful lyrics that avoid sloganeering or blog-caliber ranting. “Everybody Knows”, on the other hand, veers toward a punked-up coffee house, leftist screed. The lines “You fabricated your way in here / And everybody knows / Everybody knows you are a liar” could be a transcript from a talk radio show. I do, however, love the way Farina and MacKaye scream “You’re fired” in unison, before concluding the track with “Let the door hit you on the ass.” This seems like a prescient message delivered to all the Republicans whose fortunes were recently reversed (on the album’s US release date, I might add). Still, while I appreciate the message, I want lyrics that don’t read like bumper stickers. I crave some measure of poetry, even if it’s in the slamming form of “Pushed against the wall / Ruins / Wastage / Refuse / Trifle / Debris / It is unnervingly normal / So ordinary that it looks obscene.” That’s some hard, dirty imagery, nicely counterbalanced by the head-bopping rhythm created by the band.

The song “Get Even”, meanwhile, opens with a tight, math-rocky strumming, and features some wonderfully abstruse (and also math-related!) words:

If X is B it’s not linear to me
Bred to breed
Not to touch at degrees
The grasses will go straight
And bodies will take shape
When there’s nothing in the way

Hmm, yeah, I think I, you know, kinda get it… the song’s all about sex, or being true to yourself, or politics, right?

Honestly, I’m happy not to know for sure. I’d rather be preoccupied with a meditation than inundated with generalizations. Fortunately, the Evens get this right more often than not. Get Evens is a grittier, more overtly political follow-up to their charming debut. While old-school MacKaye fans might remain dejected by his dedication to the indie-jazz-folk-rock-pop of his new outfit, they should be cheered by the angrier undertones on the band’s strong sophomore release.

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