Note: We think it is a good idea to review old albums in addition to new ones. Music isn’t fast food; some of it is meant to last.
Rated by Spin Magazine the 29th best album from 1985-2005 (behind albums by Oasis, Pavement, the Pixies, Wu Tang, Liz Phair and U2, to name a few, but ahead of The Smashing Pumpkins and Jane’s Addiction), Fugazi’s 13 Songs (1989) is by far the band’s best album. Problematically enough (for those who care about albums), it is not even originally an album at all but instead the combination of two EPs.
The album consists of, appropriately, 13 pop-length songs (averaging under three minutes each). The energy, focus and style of almost any track on the album would best most tracks on the rest of Fugazi’s releases, if you prefer your hardcore to come in short melodic songs with beginnings, middles and ends. Perhaps more importantly, the music and its messages represent the best of what Fugazi has to offer.
The sixth song, “Suggestion”, is the heart of the album musically and ethically. If any Fugazi song could have been a popular single in the 90’s, it is this one. The chaotic guitars start out searching for a riff, anchored by the rolling rhythm of the bass and drums. The song’s title appears in the first line: “Why can’t I walk down the street free of suggestion?” The later “Is my body the only trait in the eyes of man”, at home in the overall song, seems as if it could have inspired the conversation that Edward Norton and Brad Pitt have on the bus in Fight Club when they point to a picture of a man with a six-pack and ask whether this is what a man looks like.
Indeed, social and capitalistic pressures on the definition of masculinity, the central idea of the song, features in the bridge-crescendo (“Suffer your interpretation of what it is….to be a man”). The song ends with something of a whimper (though not a whine) as the topic shifts to a female character, undone and victimized herself by the pressures and expectations of masculinity. The balance of personal reflection and social commentary over now dissonant and then melodic sound is essential what makes Fugazi unique.
From the first track, in fact, 13 Songs is exceptional. The opening bass line and sharp drum hits of “Waiting” preface nearly poetic lines (“I am a patient boy/ I wait, I wait, I wait, I wait / My time is water down a drain”). The vocals of the two singers (Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto) nicely contrast one another—the clarity of vocals on the first track is nicely offset by the more gravelly verses of “Bulldog Front”.
By the time the clarion focus returns on “Bad Mouth” the themes and musical character of the band start to coalesce. The hard hitting drums and surprisingly complex bass lines underscore insistent and sometimes shouted vocals. The songs tend to emphasize frustration with hypocrisy and the type of stubborn idealism that usually fade after adolescence. The guitars duel and flirt with the kind of noise that typifies Sonic Youth (sometimes closer to Ministry) but with a sense of musical hooks and repetition that keeps the music firmly grounded in rock. (The style is firmly post-punk—some of the alternations wouldn’t be unexpected in certain Pixies’ songs; Pearl Jam’s guitars are clearly indebted to Fugazi’s sound).
It is this musical sensibility that sets Fugazi’s early work apart. The bass and rim-hits of “Burning” with a breathless insistent vocal (coupled with the paranoia of the lyrics) double over into a nearly chaotic chorus; the feedback almost always resolves into a musical point. The fifth song “Give me the Cure” starts with a guitar riff that might be at home on a Doors record (sans organ, of course) but it is the lyrics that are quintessentially Fugazi—the gravelly vocalist alternates between talking about dying, attacking the blindness of his addressee and asking for the eponymous ‘cure’. The song builds in a crescendo that capitalizes the band’s guitar strengths and multiple vocals.
The ninth song “Burning Too” is as strong of a song as “Suggestion” in many ways with its memorable bass line, and powerful harmonic vocals in its opening and repeated lyrics. (The lyrics can be a bit juvenile: “We are consumed by society / We are obsessed with variety /We are all filled with anxiety that this world would not survive”; perhaps not juvenile, but certainly not as sublime or poetic as “Margin Walker’s” “You make yourself so, so beautiful / and now I feel like I’m going, / I’m going to set myself on fire” or as hard-hitting as “Bulldog’s Front’s” “Ahistorical – / you think this shit just dropped right out of the sky / my analysis: / it’s time to harvest the crust from your eyes”.)
The rest of the album is evenly good. The opening guitar lick of “Provisional” alone would make it a strong track on most rock albums from the 90’s (the vocals are memorable as well). There are some weaker tracks. The narrative of “Glue Man” seems out of place—read without the music, the lyrics could belong to Tom Waits or Bob Dylan. While the energy and emotion on the penultimate track “Lockdown” is good—the song doesn’t measure up to others such as “Promises” (with its apt profanity: “Promises are shit / we speak the way we breathe/ present air will have to do /rearrange and see it through/ stupid fucking words”) which turns rage into a sing-a-long.
Fugazi is a band that can mean many things—which I may have not made clear enough in my first post on the subject. This band’s sound and ethic is unique enough to justify the time it takes to screen this album. If you haven’t heard it, you should listen to it for music history’s sake alone. If you have heard it, I’d love to hear your opinion. I’m eagerly awaiting the judgment of the Younger J as I write this.