Crate-Digging: Fugazi – The Argument

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(Dischord, 2001)

Fugazi’s on hiatus. They have been since 2001, the year they released their final album (so far), The Argument. That’s nine years, people. Nine whole years. And you know, Superchunk just made their spectacular comeback after a nine-year hiatus, with a stellar new record (Majesty Shredding) and a reunion tour. The two bands share similar situations: Fugazi’s Ian Mackaye owns and operates Dischord Records, a highly respected indie in the music community. Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance own and operate Merge Records, a highly respected indie in the music community. Both labels specialize in high-energy indie rock music, with Dischord skewing more toward the classic punk vein. And both labels are weathering the “where is the music industry headed?” and “how can I sell records when people can get them for free?” storms nicely (although Dischord’s moving at a much slower pace). See? Similar. Similar ethics and business practices for each label – can we hope for similar career trajectories? That’s right, Fugazi: It’s time for you to reunite.

But in the absence of new material from Washington, DC’s, godfathers of forward-thinking politico-core-slash-fave crusty punk royalty (who gets to beat me first for that one?), the time certainly feels right to revisit this, their last recorded full length. It’s a departure, for sure, from their slash-and-thrash early days in the mid-1980s DC punk scene – the compositions here breathe far more than the taut material featured on their first-period albums, from the early singles through In On the Kill Taker, for starters. But looking at Fugazi’s discography as a whole, it’s a lot easier to see this coming. That and perhaps the fact that Mackaye was pushing forty years old during the recording of The Argument – nah, he’s still filled with vitriol. However, beginning with Red Medicine and continuing through End Hits to this record, there appeared a definite shift in the band’s sound, a maturity in the arrangements, and a gravity heavier and deeper than the heart-on-sleeve, and often skin-deep, affectations of the middle-finger-in-the-air-at-the-establishment punk rock that preceded them.

Guy Picciotto and Ian Mackaye.

Moralistic as always, Fugazi is easy to identify with in that sense, as Mackaye and the rest of the band focus specifically on live-and-let-live philosophies in their anti-misogyny, anti-violence, anti-greed (though pro-capitalist), and positive lifestyle stances. Big fat duh: Mackaye coined the term “straight edge” as a member of cornerstone hardcore band Minor Threat – it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to make the connection that alcohol-/drug-/and meaningless-sex-free living contributes greatly to a more positive worldview, as well as the clarity to think for oneself and not be satisfied with the status quo. Meaning: Positive engagement within one’s community stemming from moralistic personal ideals results in a more positive culture and living environment. Taking that a step further to the stage, where Fugazi holds sway over its captive “community,” the band is known to single out and directly address audience members who dance too violently (they’ve practically outlawed slam dancing at their shows) or are otherwise unruly to the point of disturbing others. (In fact, check this out. It’s a forty-minute recording of stage banter stitched together over the years, and presented for streaming or free download by the Chunklet webzine. And it’s a lot more engaging than it sounds.)

That’s good stuff. And instead of bellowing directly in your face, Fugazi’s here instead to discuss the next steps with you, and work everything out for the good of the people. Things change with age, and the exuberant youthful energy of the early punk days gives way to growing cynicism. But with a positive foundation the band’s patience is a strength, as they restrain and adjust their musical M.O. for dynamic impact without minimizing the message of the lyrics. Take for example Mackaye’s “Cashout,” in which slinking guitar and grooving bass follow a clattering drum rhythm through the verses: “On the morning of the first eviction, / they carried out the wishes of the landlord and his son. / Furniture’s out on the sidewalk next to the family. / That little piggie went to market, so they’re kicking out everyone. / Talking about process and dismissal / forced removal of the people on the corner. / Shelter and location, / Everybody wants somewhere.” Here, “development wants, development gets” in a tale of gentrification gone awry, the poor being forced to relocate in favor of a city looking to make over its uglier parts regardless of human cost. Remember the Beijing Olympics? Same thing happened – Fugazi’s suggesting it happens here in the U.S. as well. (And actually, Mackaye does shout a bit by song’s end – the dynamics from one end of the song to the other are some of the best on the album.)

Guy, slam dunked.

More restraint can be found elsewhere on the record, with second singer/songwriter Guy Picciotto’s dark indie contribution “Life and Limb” and acoustic-guitar-based and Heatmiser-esque (!) “Nightshop” standouts, while the middle of the album is anchored with two five-minute-plus tracks in Mackaye’s “The Kill” and Picciotto’s “Strangelight.” And although they prove here that they excel when exhibiting restraint, they rip through a couple rockers too. “Full Disclosure” is all rumbling bass and guitar on the verses, through which Picciotto yelps “I want out” over and over like a batshit insane mongrel, but the choruses burst sunnily into major-chord indie rock, complete with oooh-ing falsetto backing vocals, a welcome surprise. “Ex-Spectator” truly showcases the power and nuance that can be generated by dual drummers, with Brendan Canty and Joe Busher locking in the foundation of the song before the guitars and Mackaye’s vocal enter. The harmonic three-part arpeggiated guitar-and-bass bridge stretches the song in wider directions, until the chorus kicks in, ratchets up the distortion, and sets explosive charges for vocal shouts to blow it all to smithereens. It’s exhilarating as well as refreshing – the new and old Fugazi really come together to great effect.

The album closes with the title track, a musically low-key musing decidedly from an elder statesman of the punk scene, questioning the value of certain stances when the effect of a belief is much smaller than the damage the establishment can produce. So Mackaye, with all of his history and all of his baggage, decides that the only thing he can do is remain a thorn in the side of unchecked power and never back down when he disagrees with something: “here’s what’s striking me / that some punk could argue some moral ABCs / when people are catching what bombers release / I’m on a mission to never agree.” And with a two-note guitar preface, the song climaxes to a close, with Fugazi riding off into the sunset on a repeated line of “here comes the argument,” quite possibly a literal distillation of the band’s entire career. It’s such a fitting end, and yet it sounds like Mackaye, Picciotto, Canty, and bassist Joe Lally have some unfinished business, despite the fact that during the hiatus all four have been involved with other musical projects, either in bands or in the studio. So here’s my challenge boys: Reunite!

RIYL: Jawbox, Juno, Drive Like Jehu

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