City Paper is not for tourists
True story: I once attended a make-out party where part of the soundtrack was a tape of Minor Threat’s 1981 debut EP. It was a strange and wondrous scene, nearly surreal and definitely cinematic. The tableau: a house full of awkward and hormonal adolescents, slightly buzzed on Mom and Dad’s Chivas Regal, practicing for the big leagues with puritanical straight-edger Ian MacKaye growling sweet somethings into our ears. Even then it seemed impossibly cool and very deeply strange, somewhere between My So-Called Life and Kids. The weirdest thing about it was how well Minor Threat worked as make-out music. I mean, who knew?
When you think about it, though, the combination begins to make some kind of twisted sense. Teenage kicks are hard to beat, but they’re also spastic, lurching, and tense, descriptors that apply just as well to Minor Threat’s (guess you have to call it) aesthetic philosophy. Caustic, yes, but also heartfelt, the group’s biting, didactic social critique signified more through gestalt than particularityat least for me and my buddies down in sunny central Florida. Teenagers everywhere know what it is to be thwarted, ill-advised by adults, and made to feel that their desiresboth political (Why can’t I stay out past curfew?) and sexual (Why can’t I get to second base?)are wrong or, worse, not even worth having. Heck, even the Knack made and lost a million dollars mining that particular vein of pop melancholiaall before MacKaye was old enough to drink.
MacKaye’s words, it’s true, weren’t exactly of the let’s-get-it-on variety, but they were filled with plenty of desiredeep, visceral desireand discovering that was in itself a revelation, on par with a first French kiss or an initial foray into the mosh pit. Moshing, of course, instantly became ridiculous once dim-bulb bullies started pushing girls out of the circle, but when it still held status as the most socially significant dance fad since the twist, it was a fairly pure and collectivist expression of adolescent passion: sweaty body touching sweaty body, adrenaline levels pushing past the legal limit, aggression sublimated into awkward intimacy. Kinda like Minor Threat itself. Kinda like the scene at a make-out party.
If Minor Threat made music for uninitiated, unattached youth, Fugazi, MacKaye’s grown-up band, makes music for marrieds. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Married people make out, too, but not usually when they’re enervated, worried about paying the bills, or getting laid off. “Cashout,” the supple, loose-limbed cut thatafter 52 seconds of untitled art noiseopens Fugazi’s new long-player, The Argument, chronicles “the morning of the first eviction” in the kind of rich, mordant detail with which MacKaye has been making the personal the political for two decades now. Over Brendan Canty’s resigned but nonetheless funky backbeat, MacKaye chants about “process and dismissal/Forced removal of the people on the corner.” It’s an anti-gentrification screed, all rightsomething any young couple in Mount Pleasant has heard plenty of times beforebut one that’s positively poetic in its fatalism. Even the cadence of the words sounds hopeless, and not even Joe Lally’s rolling bass line can lift his singer’s flagging spirits.
“Cashout” closes with a shouted call-and-response mantra about the simple desire for a place to be:
“Ev-ry-body wants/Somewhere.” When the curtain comes up on the incendiary “Full Disclosure,” though, guitarist-vocalist Guy Picciotto changes the band’s tune: “I want out,” he screams about a thousand times, slurring his words through Fugazi’s powerhouse din. A brittle, single-string guitar line is threaded down the middle of the music while Lally shoplifts a measure or two from Steve Miller’s “Space Cowboy.” “Full Disclosure” is the inverse of “Cashout”a noisy, anthemic celebration that rivals both early-period Public Image Ltd. and any-period Hüsker Dü for dramatic, guitar-drenched catharsis. When the chorus arrives, complete with sweet harmonies and an actual catchy part, the effect is like a drug rush that’s too powerful: It leaves you palpitating and sweatyand all it cost was a few gazillion brain cells. “I want a mutually assured destructive life,” Picciotto shrieks. “Take me over/And blow out my mind.” It’s nihilism paired with hedonistic pleasurewhich gets condemned by association, of coursebut, man, does it hurt so good.
Somewhere between those twin poles of bitter resignation and contempt for lobotomized revelry, Fugazi makes its best music. And The Argument, like Furniture +2, the three-track EP the band has issued simultaneously, contains a handful of songs that easily reach earlier high-water marks such as “Repeater” and “Bed for the Scraping.” “Full Disclosure” and the EP’s headbanging “Hello Morning” are especially strong reminders of how potent the group can be when it laces strict-time ideology with big-time hooks. Even better, on the almost-delicate LP closer, “Argument,” MacKaye winks knowingly at his legions of admirers, signaling solidarity while cracking a joke at his own expense: “I’m on a mission/To never agree/Here comes the argument.” But of course.
Too often, though, MacKaye & Co. just sound mentally drained this time around, worn out from working so damn hard and worrying all the time, as if putting in all those extra hours has finally caught up with them and they still don’t have enough to pay the rent, make the car payment, and… Honey, when are we going to start saving for the kids’ college fund? “Epic Problem,” a punk-metal grindfest in shades of Deep Purple, gets right to the heart of all those points: “And inside/I know I’m broken/But I’m working as far as you can see.” The elegant but meandering “Strangelight” follows suit, grimly: “Now it’s hard to punch the clock/On a site where production’s stopped.”
Elsewhere, the group is less direct but still just as reflexively depressive. “Furniture,” the goofy Minutemen-meets-Agent Orange stomper that kick-starts the EP, puts it this way: “How many times have you felt like a bookcase/Sitting in a living room gathering dust/Full of thought already written.” Sophomoric and presumably parodic Beat poetry though they are, those lines conjure a world of always-already-defeated adults with nothing but angst in their pants. And jeez Louise, no one but a masochist (or a grad student) is ever gonna make out to that.
But what the adults don’t know, the little kids understand: Don’t sweat the big stuff (and it’s all big stuff), curfews are for violating, and even though Chivas tastes like crap, if that’s the only thing in the liquor cabinet, you drink it anyway. Pleasure is too ephemeral (and, now more than ever, too important) to let it slip through your fingers while you’re wringing your hands. So take it where you find it and don’t be so goddamn judgmental, OK? If I remember correctly, as soon as the Minor Threat cassette clicked off at our barely debauched, hardly dangerous make-out party, someone (I’m not saying who) hopped up and slapped in a copy of Foreigner’s Head Games. And that worked out all right, too. I mean, “Rev on the Red Line” is still a pretty great song, right up there with “Screaming at a Wall.” CP