5. “Cashout” – The Argument (2001)
Fugazi’s hometown of Washington, D.C., is an interesting city: though the District is over 50% black, de facto lines of racial segregation follow almost ruthlessly strict borders based on neighborhood and ward demarcations. In other words, travel to affluent, predominantly white Northwest D.C., and you might be hard-pressed to believe that the District enjoys one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. Of course, as in most major cities, the young and wealthy are spreading out to “transitional” neighborhoods, previously the domain of minorities and lower economic classes.
“Cashout” tackles the issue of such gentrification — as Ian MacKaye puts it, “Talking about process / And dismissal / Forced removal of the people on the corner.” The choice of subject matter isn’t as striking as MacKaye’s delivery. He sings, his surprisingly confident and restrained tenor proving the perfect accompaniment for his band’s similarly patient instrumentation. Eventually, the track explodes into high gear, the guitars clearing their throats and MacKaye barking, “Everybody wants / Somewhere / Somewhere!” The anger feels entirely justified, coming as it does after a slow, ominous build. MacKaye’s empathy is bound to his intelligence — it’s one thing to rail against The Man; it’s another thing to actually understand the forces of destruction at work in our society, and MacKaye is up to the task.
4. “Do You Like Me” – Red Medicine (1995)
The first 50 seconds of Red Medicine opener “Do You Like Me” is a nice bait-and-switch. Guitars, processed to sound more like the churning gears of an ancient piece of industrial machinery well in need of some WD-40, clang and clamor in formless dissonance. Coming off of Fugazi’s previous album, the relentlessly noisy and aggressive In on the Kill Taker (1993), listeners to these first few bars likely felt they were witnessing Fugazi turn even more devoutly toward squall and fury. However, at the 50-second mark of “Do You Like Me”, everything shifts on a dime: Brendan Canty’s snare drum announces itself, and suddenly Fugazi is playing one of the most pop-oriented, straight-forward songs of its career. “Do You Like Me” is — no bait-and-switch-here — a track about that hallowed rock ‘n’ roll subject, unrequited love.
Guy Picciotto belts out some nicely imagistic poetry: “Your eyes / Like crashing jets / Fixed in stained glass / But not religious / You should pay rent / In my mind.” Of course, he later finds time to mention the then-current merger of ominous defense contractors Lockheed Corporation and Martin Marietta — this is a Fugazi song, after all. But the relatively direct emotion here hits cleanly, with Picciotto’s vocals stronger than ever. Canty’s busy drumming guides his band toward a fiery, adrenaline-pumping breakdown. “I got a question!”, Picciotto wails, “I got a question!” Who wouldn’t return his phone call?
3. “Turnover” – Repeater (1990)
On Repeater (1990), Fugazi honed both primary elements that made its earlier material so immediately jaw-dropping: the eardrum-popping guitar assault of hardcore and the simple, funk-laden grooves of dub. “Turnover” displays the band’s subtle sharpening of its style. Joe Lally’s bassline bounces along, bringing just the right amount of levity to his bandmates’ seething composition. The song takes its time in building to its final, delectably satisfying release of tension. Such patience was largely absent on 13 Songs, and when MacKaye and Picciotto join each other in tremolo shredding toward the end of the track, the wait proves well worth it. The burst of energy is the sonic equivalent of a Red Bull arterial injection. Then, the music cools down, as if Fugazi is taking a collective breath. One can hardly blame them.
2. “Waiting Room” – 13 Songs (1989)
This is the “hit”, the song that inspired a thousand covers (TV on the Radio, Red Hot Chili Peppers, your band in high school) and remains Fugazi’s most well-known — and perhaps most beloved — composition. It’s easy to understand why: “Waiting Room” is the perfect picture of an anthem (the Washington Redskins often blasted it over the PA at home games). Joe Lally offers a hook of a bassline so powerful and indelible that it serves as a one-song master class in how to bring the instrument to life. Ian MacKaye’s palm-muted guitar follows suit, and his sing-shouted lyrics — “I am a patient boy / I wait, I wait, I wait, I wait” — practically beg for the audience to shout them right back at him.
Guy Picciotto’s backing vocals snarl and bite with punk precision. Picciotto claims he was initially intrigued about the concept of a backing vocalist in a punk band by the presence of similar vocal counterpoints in hip-hop, and the idea makes sense here — “Waiting Room” has the slightly campy, crowd-pleasing power of classic late ’80s rap music, yet another unusual touchstone in Fugazi’s musical foundation. Visceral, ebullient, classic.
1. “Repeater” – Repeater (1990)
The sound of a clenched fist, raised in the air as a rallying cry or hurdling toward the face of any number of despots, small-scale or large. For “Repeater’s” three minutes, Fugazi exercise an act of such righteous rage that it manages to transcend that anger, transforming frustration into affirmation, some encouragement for anyone who’s ever felt worn down or put upon. It’s difficult to even imagine what Brendan Canty is doing to his drum kit here, and the way MacKaye and Picciotto’s guitars alternate in the same breath from scorched feedback to chiming hook — it defies explanation.
“Repeater” begins in the red, lurches to a near stop, and somehow manages to finish with even more fire than it had to start. It would be one thing for a band to play with such focus, direction, and precision — that’s what the hardcore bands did before Fugazi came to life. But for that same band to blend volume with soul — and we’re talking both the concept and the musical genre — is something else. Thank Joe Lally and his bass, but thank the rest of Fugazi, as well; every element of the band’s vision achieves perfect poise on “Repeater”, and it’s still a monster to behold, 20 years later.
This article was originally published on 23 November 2011.