When taking the critical approach to any art form it’s often difficult to avoid what I’ll call the tyranny of expectation. That is, evaluating a work based upon how much it satisfies on a personal level instead of identifying the artist’s (sometimes obscure) intentions and developing conclusions on how successfully said artist(s) achieved their goal(s). Of course every critic, whether professional or amateur, has a unique group of artworks that affect them on a profound personal level; the challenge is to keep enough distance from the piece being critiqued to interact with it on its terms (which shouldn’t necessarily be equated with the terms of the artist). At its worst, the tyranny of expectation is all about the critic’s needs; how are you going to satisfy me today? Keeping a handle on this impulse (and that’s really the best a writer can do, we’re not robots, after all) will hopefully lead to ideas and conclusions that will possibly illuminate the subject’s achievement or failure (or combination of both) for a spectrum of readers with their own specific ideas on what makes an artwork great. This is the dialogue of criticism, and the best practitioners of the form are able to strike an impressive balance between openly advocating for what they love and continuing this admirable, necessary dialogue. Unchecked, the tyranny of expectation produces a monologue: This is what I like, and you should like it too. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately (can’t ya’ tell?), and it seemed like a good idea to mention it in relation to the solo work of Joe Lally, who has released three albums in the period since his band Fugazi went on “indefinite hiatus”, more records than any other member of the group. The first two LPs were quietly released and up to this point they’ve been very quietly received, a circumstance that seems intrinsically tied to how different they are in approach to Fugazi’s well established rock dynamic. The Evens, Ian MacKaye’s folk-punk duo project with drummer Amy Farina is also a large departure from Fugazi’s shifting sonic template, but in their case the inclusion of often topical subject matter and the immediately recognizable sound of Ian’s voice clarifies the situation an pulls the duo’s two albums into the center of late-period Dischordian affairs. Joe Lally however is still out on the fringes. His third record WHY SHOULD I GET USED TO IT came out a few months back, and the reception was largely the same; some acknowledgement, a small bit of positive press, and that’s been it thus far. In some ways this isn’t surprising. Lally was largely the toughest nut to crack in Fugazi’s membership. Unlike his cohorts, he had no previous pedigree; MacKaye was/is a cornerstone ambassador of North American post-hardcore indie-punk’s historical legend and Canty/Picciotto played essential roles in one of Washington DC’s greatest post-HC bands, Revolution Summer heavyweights Rites of Spring. Lally’s Tollota Records label largely indulged in worthy small-scale hard-rock efforts by bands like Spirit Caravan and Dead Meadow, an activity that stood significantly apart from the main flow of his band’s collective activity, and while his singing of a few key later Fugazi cuts added much to their estimable growth as a band, it ultimately did little to enhance his elusive personality beyond being the quiet guy who brought the bass and slowly, infrequently began stepping up to the microphone. And that’s cool. Fugazi were never wanting in terms of tangible individualist fire, and that Lally stood back and brought predominantly musical elements to the table proved essential to how the band operated. But this means that Lally’s solo work, where he takes an assertive leadership role for the first time, is difficult to reconcile in terms of Fugazi’s looming, not quite oppressive presence, particularly since all three albums deviate quite clearly in terms of conception, influence and sound. Lally first two albums are largely minimal projects that avoid the dynamic sensibility of a working core-unit, instead presenting a relationship with a revolving cast of familiar names in service of a sonic environment that on one hand feels purposefully unfinished but on the other registers as finessed to precision. As such, it’s markedly different from Fugazi’s post-HC/art rock progressions. Instead, the atmosphere recalls post-punk at its most experimentally spacious and infectiously rhythmic. On these records Lally is a solo artist in the true sense, his bass and confidently straightforward vocals front and center, the dominant reason for the music’s existence. But their most interesting aspect is how they feel like the workshopping and careful documentation of a person stepping away from the role of constant collaborator to define the terms of his own individual voice. As such, both THERE TO HERE (2006) and NOTHING IS UNDERRATED (2007) exist quite outside the main stream of listener expectations. Without his name on the records, it would be unlikely that the vast number of ears would even recognize them as being connected to Fugazi or the Dischord label at all. This might prove alienating to some, but I don’t think that’s the intent. Not at all. By working through a variety of fresh sonic avenues and presenting the results as completed albums Lally simply directed his energy towards defining his own expectations of what his musical voice should be apart from Fugazi. In this regard I find his first two records to be very interesting and enlightening looks at a musician detailing the parameters of his artistic progression. It’s surely true that not all listeners will perceive it as such, but for me this circumstance is quite palpable, especially since WHY SHOULD I GET USED TO IT is notably different in approach. This new record, recorded in Rome (where Lally now lives) with a much smaller cast of contributors, feels immediately like the work of an operational band. This shouldn’t infer that he’s abandoned the skeletal rhythmic structures that were so prevalent on the first two discs; it’s just that they’ve been adjusted to a framework of familiarity between three main players. If THERE TO HERE and NOTHING IS UNDERRATED were solo projects, this new one is much closer to a rock album in the traditional sense (if not traditional sound). In fact, the one/two/three punchiness of “Ken-Gar”, the title track and “Coral and Starfish” remind me somewhat of late period Minutemen, but with the added treat of Lally’s increasingly authoritative if deliberately unperturbed vocalizing marking the sound as ultimately his own. Emanuele Tomasi’s loose but focused drumming and Elisa Abela’s often frenetic guitar wrangling really do a lot to propel and distinguish this set of eleven fine songs, and while I’ve yet to develop any specific favorites, the opener “What Makes You” is a real kick-starter. Christine Mairer’s cello on “Ministry of the Interior” is also a welcome touch. I’m confident in describing WHY SHOULD I GET USED TO IT as a grower, and I’m hopeful that Lally can keep this group around for another album or three. Yes, those are my expectations, but if he frustrates them I’ll be ready to meet the challenge. Where much contemporary music seems wired to make an explosive initial impression, a trait that often causes it to suffer and wither over time, Joe Lally’s work is about smaller gestures and pleasures. Seemingly disinterested in being the next big (and brief) thing, he’s instead focused on making the best albums possible on his terms, and in this modest endeavor he’s succeeding with flying colors.
Fugazi hit the scene shortly after I first discovered punk rock, and they were revelatory for a number of reasons, most notably for being unashamedly punk in spirit (if not reductive in style) at a point when the form was widely disdained as being sort of a lost cause. Up to that point, most of the punk that I was devouring was from bands that had either broken up or were at the tail end of a steady decline (Here’s a partial list: The Damned, The Saints, The Weirdos, The Dils, Black Flag, Minutemen, Misfits, Germs, Circle Jerks, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, D.O.A.). Whenever I’d cock an ear at a contempo band being touted in the often photocopied pages of the punk press, they would mostly register as a pale facsimile of the earlier stuff’s uncut gusto. The concept that punk was dead was only being challenged by unappealing knuckleheaded mouth-breathers like The Exploited and their fans, and every time I heard an unfortunate bunch of hardcore-damaged newbies regurgitate formula or suffered a sad bunch of also-rans like The Vandals run through the miserable motions I inched closer to the conclusion that the naysayers might just be on to something. Sure, there was a bunch of post-hardcore hitting the racks during this period, but nearly all of it registered as a new style emerging from the ashes of stylistic roadblock, much like how UK post-punk appeared as a new set of possibilities at the end of the ‘70s. Well, Fugazi gave the lie to punk’s obituary notices with a quickness. Accurately described as a post-hardcore band, they were however so intrinsically tied to the political, social and personal themes of a specific strain of punk rock that it felt like they were carrying the torch for the righteous and thoughtful proletarian agitation that once burned so brightly all over the globe. The first two Fugazi EPs were such a constant part of my daily listening as the ‘80s flamed to their conclusion that I fully confess to rarely listening to them anymore, not because of burnout but rather due to whole large chunks of the records becoming so ingrained in my consciousness that I can still recall them from memory. From this a person might assume those EPs to be my favorites, but no. My personal tip-top Fugazi disc is 1993’s incendiary IN ON THE KILL TAKER, a record so powerful and expansive from inside the roomy confines of the rock context that it not only stands in my considered estimation as the band’s all-around best release, but also one of the finest examples of rock spawned by that decade. It was the album where Ian MacKaye’s more straightforwardly punk vocal/lyrical style and Guy Picciotto’s artier, less definable microphone proclivities found a perfect balance and depth, with the instrumental template being widened and intensified beyond their already formidable post-HC stop-start dynamics and often dub-influenced rhythmic strategies. REPEATER and STEADY DIET OF NOTHING are surely excellent albums, but their most noteworthy attribute aside from a general high level of quality is how they expanded the early Fugazi sound from those EPs and into the long form, proving that they could sustain the punk essence and ingenuity across four sides of LP-length vinyl. If they’d carried forth in that framework for a few more records everything would’ve been just ducky. But with IN ON THE KILL TAKER, additional noise and abstraction entered the equation, blasting forth from a band that had become so tightly wound through constant live playing and intense practice schedules that they breathed like one gigantic four-brained organism. Previously, this rigorous activity had the tendency to render their music as precise in a way that sat in sharp and refreshing contrast to the period’s gestalt of unruly noise rock. But on this album Fugazi flung themselves onto the precipice of a raucous cacophony that burned white-hot and connected perfectly with their increasing anger and disgust with the state of the US union. For many musicians, the decision to “go political” is a recipe for disappointment. While Phil Ochs or Archie Shepp, The Ex or Mecca Normal combine well thought out and complex ideological sensibilities with inventive songwriting or inspired musical ideas, far more pollute the atmosphere with trite or slapdash conceptions that do little but restate the obvious or reduce real tangible issues into oversimplifications. In my estimation, this wasn’t the case with Fugazi, largely because their political/social dimension never registered as calculated choice. Thinking individuals reared on punk in the belly of the global political beast (that’s Washington DC, FYI), it instead always seemed like they didn’t have much say in the matter; to be apolitical in the face of rampant injustice and corruption would’ve been a choice, and thankfully it’s one they never entertained. I’ve always appreciated the band’s political stance, partially because I’m an unabashed lefty, but also due to a) in the words of Steve Albini, they walked it like they talked it, and b) they avoided the extremes of either obscure rhetoric or simple-minded sloganeering. Fugazi were in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, Ochs, The Last Poets and D. Boon, and that’s why I’ve never held any truck with those who felt they should’ve eschewed this course. To expect a punk band from the Nation’s Capitol to be non-political seems seriously wrongheaded to me, and points to a mindset that desires being entertained instead of engaged or challenged. But one interesting thing about IN ON THE KILL TAKER is how it frustrates the political tag: it not only includes one of their best instrumentals “Sweet and Low”, but also presents a lovely tribute to a brilliant filmmaker in “Cassavetes”, surely an ideological tune partially concerned with how systems of commerce break down artists, but quite distinct from the main thrust of their lyrical focus. In the end though, Fugazi’s lasting reputation is about music; being fiercely independent and politically astute wouldn’t count for anything if they didn’t bring the goods. Lally and Canty are simply one of the best rhythmic pairs to spring from the whole punk/hardcore upheaval, and coupled with the twin guitar/vocal attack of Ian and Guy forms one of the defining sounds of the indie-rock era. Now don’t think for a sec that I’m not enamored with Fugazi’s later work. Quite to the contrary, I’m still quite astounded by how the band smartly chose to avoid trying to repeat the brilliance of KILL TAKER, instead electing to explore more experimental areas (and occasional forays into more trad melodicism) that found them heading toward art-rock and away from anything that could confidently be tagged as post-hardcore. The band’s hiatus has been a long one, almost a decade in fact, and frankly I’m not a bit optimistic they will get back together. But that’s okay. More so than many other bands, there was always a palpable lightning-in-a-bottle quality to how these guys kept it together for so long. It’s that nagging punk thing again; bands of this genre (or in its tradition) aren’t supposed to last for over ten years, much less make amazing music across that span. But Fugazi did. IN ON THE KILL TAKER gives me a beautiful ass-kicking every time I hear it, and reminds me to never take too much stock in received wisdom.