City Paper is not for tourists
For many fans of punk and indie rock, the most famous address in Washington is 3819 Beecher St. NW, the locale listed on the back of each of the 150 or so albums, EPs, and videos released by Dischord Records. The label, which celebrates its 26th anniversary in December, is perhaps best known for the bands led by singer-guitarist Ian MacKaye, one of its founding owners. Over the course of his decadeslong career, the 44-year-old D.C. native has played in a variety of DIY styles—from Minor Threat’s bulldoggish hardcore to Embrace’s leaden emocore to Fugazi’s explosive post-punk—but he’s never been part of an outfit that could be described as easy on the ears.
That is, until now. The Evens, MacKaye’s duo with singer-drummer Amy Farina, abandons much of what listeners expect from D.C.’s most eminent punk. Released four years after Fugazi’s last show, MacKaye and Farina’s second full-length, Get Evens, is, even by indie-rock standards, a disarmingly casual affair. MacKaye plays simple, undistorted lines on baritone guitar, an instrument he says splits the difference between normal guitar and bass. And Farina, the muscle behind the Warmers, a mid-’90s Dischord act fronted by MacKaye’s younger brother Alec, approaches her kit with similar restraint, tapping out detailed rhythms at coffeehouse volume. Both sing as if trying to save their voices for another day.
The same could be said for the Evens’ self-titled 2004 debut. Many reviewers likened it to regular old folk music. But the disc portrays a band that is less than settled in its quietude. For every O Brother, Where Art Thou?–style jangle, there are just as many lapses into Repeater-style riffing. For every moment of fragile falsetto, there are just as many chants that beg for a scream. It doesn’t help that the production by Don Zientara, the engineer on many a Dischord recording, is more appropriate for MacKaye’s old band than for a duo that plays while sitting down. If this is what some say it is, then folk music sounds a lot like a Fugazi demo.
In that sense, Get Evens is a marked improvement. MacKaye and Farina recorded the new album at home on Fugazi’s old demo equipment, which, paradoxically, makes it sound more like a finished product. Not only does the grainier fidelity buff out some of the blemishes that a louder band might cover up with noise, it also honors the informal settings in which the band often performs. Type the Evens’ name into YouTube, and you’ll find plenty of evidence of the latter: churches, parks, a children’s TV show, etc. You’ll also notice a band that appears quite comfy on stage. There’s none of the battleground tension present in so many of MacKaye’s Fugazi-era performances. No sign of the countenance that seemed to say, This is work, not entertainment.
Not that the new album is all fun and games. Like many who voted against incumbents on Nov. 7, the Evens are fed up with what’s happening (and not happening) in their name. Sometimes this anger yields an articulate statement. On “Everybody Knows,” the song that best explains the cover image of the rotunda buried in dirt, the Evens take aim at those who chase power at the expense of the electorate. “The capital, it is your proving ground/Your centering,” MacKaye sings. “You and yours can keep your scores/Washington is our city.” At other times the frustrations simply overwhelm them. On “Dinner With the President,” about a fantasy invitation to the White House, MacKaye is rendered speechless. He sets up the scenario: “If I went I know what I’d like to do.” But Farina has to finish his thought: “Stand up and scream while the food is served.”
It probably wouldn’t do much good, and the Evens know it. So much of what motivated voters in the midterm election was apparent the last time the Evens released a record, a point made on the soulful “Cut From the Cloth.” “How do people sleep amidst the slaughter?” MacKaye asks. “Why would they vote in favor of their own defeat?” Later in the same song he implies that one answer might be out-of-control consumerism: “Maybe they found their voice while out shopping/The price was hard to beat.” Farina picks up a similar thread on “Eventually,” a dystopian number that imagines a world in which “all the flavors taste plain.” “If I can’t find you through all your things,” she sings over a rubbery groove, “how am I going to show you that we are free?”
That so much of Get Evens is so explicit—or at least in comparison to Fugazi—says something about the nimbleness of the band that made it. In recent interviews, MacKaye has talked about how difficult it can be for a popular, full-size rock band to go about its business. MacKaye and Farina, low-maintenance duo that they are, have fewer problems in this regard. That might explain why Get Evens, an album that was released on Election Day, has such a Decision ’06 vibe. The tradeoff, of course, is apparent in the music. Fugazi, a quartet with several vocalists, could’ve thrived as an instrumental act. The Evens, on the other hand, write music that would fall apart without its lyrics (“Pushed Against the Wall,” in particular, is downright skeletal).
If that makes them a folk act, then so be it. (It’s actually a better reason than lack of distorted guitar.) What the music is called, however, is less important than how it’s pieced together. And that has everything to do with the band’s desire to keep things simple and sustainable. Just listen to what MacKaye sings at the beginning of “Dinner With the President”: “Halfway in/I’m 44/No turning back.” It’s one thing to be in a band when you’re in your 40s; it’s quite another thing to start one. By that yardstick, Get Evens is an inspiration no matter how it stacks up in the D.C. pantheon. As singer of Minor Threat, MacKaye once implored others “not to forget” what it’s like to be a “minor at heart.” Quiet or loud, he never has. CP