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It’s been long said, and probably longer thought, that at its core, the saga of Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson’s Dischord Records is the story of about 50 people. Granted, most of the sayingor muttering under various breaths or whateverhas been done by outsiders looking in, people sometimes known as “folks who lived in Fairfax County but weren’t in Scream.” But it’s true that most of the usual Dischord suspects have known each other for decades: Kids from middle- and upper-middle- and upper-class homes in D.C., NoVa, and Maryland who fell in together starting the most mythologically vigorous hardcore scene of all time.
That’s mostly becauseand again, it’s been said before, but it bears repeatingDischord is, above all, a folk label, one that documents the native sounds of a Certain Group of People at a Certain Place and Time. For 23 years, Dischord has stayed true to its mission, through immortal times (Minor Threat, Void, sobriety as sociopolitical statement) revisionist times (Rites of Spring, Embrace, veganism as sociopolitical statement) expansive times (Nation of Ulysses, Shudder to Think, showing up in Sassy as sociopolitical statement) and whatever came after the years punk broke (Warmers, we’ll never forget you). A very few acts have moved to D.C. or its environs and been absorbed into the scene (Hoover, which made total sense; Trusty, which never did; the oft-misinterpreted Smart Went Crazy), but that’s been rare. A Certain Time and Place, people, that’s the idea.
But a funny thing happened on the way to middle age. Against the odds of Dischord’s we-were-a-band-for-a-year-and-never-toured-much history, flagship act Fugazi ended up lasting a decade and a half and counting, even as many of the folks who made up the original Dischord bands reached or breached 40 and moved on to other things. Now Dischord finds itself in the position of putting out albums by people who literally don’t remember a time when Fugazithe sound, the ethic, the state of mindwasn’t one of the world’s most important punk institutions. For your current crop of 22-to-27-year-olds, Fugazi is an influence whose anxiety you can’t escape, even as you choose to ignore it as best you can.
The members of Black Eyes, none of whom are older than 26and, more important, none of whom have played in another Dischord band beforeseem to have gone out of their way to expand their sound beyond the confines of Repeater or End Hits. The quintet’s two full-kit drummers, two bassists, and guitarist (who include the Washington City Paper’s Mike Kanin and Jacob Long) ensure that a controlled chaos reigns: Rhythms bump against each other and start fights, beats trip and fall, a keyboard gets mashed in here and there, and the bass carries whatever melody it can find while the guitars feed back, bob, and weave.
Album-opener “Someone Has His Fingers Broken” lays out the aesthetic: The guitar squalls, the double drums clatter, and someone coos, “ooo-OOO-ooo.” (Hard to tell who: The credits don’t list which of these multi-instrumentalists do what.) Then the song crashes in: One bass lays out the riffs, one wanders, the guitar goes haywire, and “For a secret kiss they drag you down/For a second sex they drag you down,” sings, uh, a singer. Even with the extra-obscure lyrics, which every tune on Black Eyes has in spades, it all works just finethat is, until the groove fades and the noise totally takes over. It’s an oft-repeated move, and one that makes some of the album’s 10 tracks feel less like finished songs than collections of cool-sounding parts that would be held together better with basement-show sweat. Insanity unfolding in front of you is always better than the same nutso blare on waxask anyone who buys a lot of free jazz.
That particular brand of unhinged has more to do with Black Eyes than you might suspect. Still, the band’s best moments, though hardly restrained, give the grooves some real space in which to breathe, grow, and move. “Speaking in Tongues” features a catchy bass line, some great guitar flicker, and an overall feel that can be described only as a rattling shimmy. The frantic “A Pack of Wolves” interpolates lines by poet Yusef Komunyakaa with fidgety, interlocking little bass melodies. And “Nine” sets in motion a krautrock steam train that fades out for some voice-blare stolen right from under ’90s New York No Wavers God Is My Co-Pilot.
Speaking of noisy influences worth imitating, the members of Black Eyes clearly know the work of veteran Dutch avant-punk outfit the Ex backward and forward. For the moment, though, the crusty old continentals have the edge over the fresh young locals: The Ex is, well, the Ex because it has a truly staggering sense of rhythm. Among indie-credible Washingtonians, only Fugazi has been able match it. There’s no reason to think Black Eyes won’t get there eventually, however. The fuel is there; the energy just needs to be harnessed more efficiently. Sometimes, it seems, a little more hero-worship can be a good thing.
El Guapo, by contrast, expands the Dischord sound by ignoring it entirely. Fake French, the band’s third studio album, substitutes burping keyboards, bass, and the occasional woodwind for guitar rage and puts syncopated, mechanical rhythms where post-harDCore would be bouncing off the walls. Were two-thirds of the trio based in Brooklyn rather than the District, it would likely be lumped in with dance-punk revivalists such as the Rapture, with which keyboardist Peter Cafarella has played. Indeed, rumor has it that all of El Guapo may be splitting for New York soon, so that full-on electroclash album might be closer than you think.
The songs are strange, clicking things, scooting along like those three-legged spiders in Minority Report: “Space Tourist” moves from a cappella round to piano-and-acoustic-guitar set to drum-machine blip. “Glass House” finds a bliphop groove in its Devo-lutions. And “Just Don’t Know” wonders where it will all go wrong (“You drink a glass of water/But you just don’t know/You open up your mail/But you just don’t know”) while taking comfort in electro’s air of cool removal.
Oddest of all, “Justin Destroyer” layers a spare organ groove over bellowed lines such as “Justice/ Justin/Avenger/Destroyer…/Justin…/Moyer,” who’s um, the band’s drummer. It’s funnier than it sounds, actually. Unlike Black Eyes’ restless messes, which can’t quite redeem lyrics that seem to be more about private passions than publicly accessible concerns, El Guapo’s rinse-and-repeat song forms keep their sweet nothings from going in one ear and out the other.
Of course, the music can’t keep every topic from out-there-ness. The deeply strange “Hollywood Crew” takes on, of all people, Lucas and Spielbergpossibly because someone in the band read Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which chronicles the directors walking on the beach and talking shop, just as the song does. The populist wunderkinds dream of empire, dinosaurs, and crying robots while El Guapo soundtracks their reveries with a graceful piano figure, a stately drumbeat, and a vocal hook that sounds half-swiped from The Godfather: “I am nothing without you/The dreams you dream I’m dreaming too.”
Is the band speaking as one of the protagonists? As a member of the megaplex audience? Is it lamenting the death of ’70s art cinema at the hands of commerce, or does it simply wish Steven had had a hand in Episode II? Maybe El Guapo is merely trying to bring Dischord into the world of popcorn movies, or maybe it’s the label doing the reaching out. At any rate, this is folk music like the District has never known. It’s a sign of life for all concerned that Dischord finds it worth documenting. CP