It’s hard to imagine any project of Ian MacKaye’s going underrated, but there it is. Growing up as a punk kid in Baltimore, in the D.C. scene’s shadow, in the ’90s, that guy exerted a crazy amount of power over my imagination and the imaginations of just about everyone I knew. Entire networks of kids viewed him with some combination of awe, scorn, grudging respect, curiosity, and, more than anything else, utter starry-eyed adoration. It wasn’t just the music, though that was almost uniformly great, and it wasn’t just the public persona, though that stood in stark contrast to just about everything else happening in music at the moment. It was some combination of art, backstory, and demonstrable success; Fugazi, after all, sold a fuckton of records while openly disdaining and bypassing the record-selling machine. And then it was something else, too. I once watched Fugazi play an outdoor show in a raging thunderstorm, gasping as lightning ripped through the sky during all the climactic cathartic moments of “Waiting Room,” almost like God had decided to sit in with the band for a song. MacKaye was also the first famous person I ever interviewed, and even though he was totally personable and approachable, my hands shook like a motherfucker the whole time. He was, and is, a person with gravity, with presence. And yet when Fugazi dissolved a decade ago, he went a different way, and that way was a quiet way.
Almost a decade ago, MacKaye became half of the Evens, alongside former Warmers drummer Amy Farina — a project they initially started so that they could play a song called “Vowel Movement” on the D.C.-based kids’ internet show Pancake Mountain. Farina and MacKaye are a couple, and their musical partnership is way more equal than most drummer/guitarist things are. Farina sings at least as much as MacKaye does, and her bell-clear alto makes a nice contrast to his wizened bleat, which he’s turned into something hushed and conversational for the purposes of Evens records. And MacKaye’s baritone guitar-strums hold down timekeeping responsibilities more often than Farina’s drums, which dance around the beat and spin off into jazz-inspired flights. I happened to be at their second show, at a small second-floor art gallery in a Baltimore rowhouse, where everyone sat on the floor and Lungfish warlock Dan Higgs brought his toddler.
All that is indicative of the music they make together: It’s comfortable, domestic, small-stakes stuff — not a soundtrack to storming the Capitol, or to calling skinhead hecklers “ice cream cone-eating motherfuckers.” As often as not, they’re singing about systemic inequality or gentrification or the existential weight of late capitalism, but they’re doing it in language more haunted and elliptical than what MacKaye once used. Starting with their really, really great 2005 self-titled debut, they released two albums in two years, but then they took a six-year break to have a son; that’s him silhouetted on the album cover. Now that they’re back with The Odds, they’ve picked up exactly where they left off. These are simple, direct, deeply satisfying songs renderd with idiosyncratic but somehow right musical choices. In different moments, they might recall any number of ’90s-indie standard-bearers: Low, Unwound, Helium. There’s even a hint of the old melodic push-pull that MacKaye and Guy Picciotto had in Fugazi. But it’s also entirely its own thing — a recognizable product of many afternoons of living-room songwriting, some of which must’ve involved whispers and improvised hand-signals to avoid waking a baby.
I hear “Broken Finger,” mostly sung by Farina, as a song about the fuzzy joy and terror of being a parent, but this isn’t their domestic-bliss album, at least not any more than the other two were. It’s a pair of deeply intuitive songwriters with deep chemistry pushing themselves into territory that they alone occupy. It’s a very homemade record, the only guests being MacKaye’s brother Alec on backup vocals on one song and a trumpeter adding a few farty blats to another. To a few of us, there’s something deeply comforting in hearing MacKaye’s voice again, but the album exists just fine outside of that. And in fact, it has almost nothing to do with the current indie-rock landscape, beyond the way the “Competing With The Till” lyrics decry the shitty bar-club infrastructure that’s become inextricable from the genre. It’s not an important album, an album that exists in conversation with the rest of the musicverse. But it’s important to me, and it’s important to me because it’s great.
The Odds is out now on Dischord.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Tim Hecker & Daniel Lopatin’s improvised drone collaboration Instrumental Tourist.
• Starred’s gooey, psychedelic Prison To Prison EP.
• Rihanna’s latest precision-engineered product Unapologetic.
• Bad Brains’ comeback effort Into The Future.
• Styles P’s full-length head-knocker The World’s Most Hardest MC Project.
• Curren$y crew Jet Life’s mobbed-up crew album Jet World Order Vol. 2.
• Wild Yaks’ jangled-up Million Years.
• Travis Barker & Yelawolf’s questionably titled Psycho White EP.