Fugazi, The Argument (Dischord)

Fugazi - The Argument Fugazi
The Argument
By: Eric Greenwood

While its music has progressed above and beyond the scope of punk and any of its splinterings, Fugazi’s anti-capitalistic message is still as stagnant as ever. I’ve always been one to ignore the band’s politics while still appreciating its music, and I do so to this day. When bands preach ceaselessly I have a hard time taking them seriously, even when they are as genuinely empathetic as Fugazi is and has always been. That said, The Argument is a stunning achievement for a band that should have imploded under the weight of its own idealistic principles long before now.

Fugazi has few, if any peers. It’s hard to believe that any band as stubbornly consistent as Fugazi has managed to turn its back completely on the music industry and still reach a considerable audience with each release. Granted, droves of the “straight edge” punks that were into Fugazi over a decade ago probably couldn’t care less about the band now, but plenty more people have signed up for the cause since- enough to keep your local National Guard Armory packed for a five-dollar show.

The first sign that the band was branching out from its post-punk dissonance was on 1993’s In On The Kill Taker, and each successive album has veered in slightly stranger directions- some unthinkable for a band that formed with a pedigree of Minor Threat and Rites Of Spring. The Argument is the logical culmination of a decade"s worth of experimentation. The band is approaching songs from a musical standpoint instead of from an emotional one, and that makes all the difference.

The sound of Ian Mackaye actually singing on "Cashout" will have many Fugazi fans double-checking the case to make sure it is indeed Fugazi emanating from the speakers. Mackaye has a drab and indistinguishable singing voice, but he"s earned the right to force it upon us, I guess. Of course, when the guitars charge up he slips back into the ever-familiar monotone yell that he"s built a career upon since he was a teenager. The music shows a newfound dynamism that reaches beyond the hackneyed soft/loud explosiveness inherent to Fugazi"s core sound.

As soon as Guy Picciotto"s maniacal yell kicks in on "Full Disclosure" it"s almost like a trip down memory lane. But what"s that in the chorus? Background "ooh"s?" Has Fugazi been listening to the Byrds? Maybe. Maybe not. Regardless, the tactic works. Mixing melody with dissonance is not a new game, but having practically invented the angular punk sound, Fugazi deserves a chance to deconstruct the formula a bit. "Epic Problem" may sound like the Fugazi of old upon first listen, but the recessive guitars in the bridge show the band"s passion for subtle musicianship expanding. Plus, Mackaye"s singing sounds good here (double tracking helps).

"Life And Limb" takes a cue from Picciotto protegees, Blonde Redhead, with its intricate guitar work and ethnic tinge. It"s moody and melodic and eerily addictive, allowing Picciotto to flex his artistic muscles without compromising the band"s sound. The experimentation continues on "The Kill", where a flowing, dub-sounding bass riff loops behind textured harmonies and Joe Lally"s bone-dry vocals. There"s no distortion whatsoever, yet the song yields a strange power. Who would have thought Fugazi could release an album this good this far into its career?

The dark and alluring guitar line of "Strangelight" culminates in a choirboy plea of "Come On Over." Picciotto"s voice sounds better than it ever has. The band has pulled out all the stops. This is Fugazi"s most ambitious and musically successful album to date. Uncharacteristically, the aggression is used sparingly, so when it does erupt you"re often surprised by how it"s been mutated. "Oh" is the perfect example. The music lurches sideways instead of climbing forward, relying clever vocal melodies to prop itself up. Bad ass. Fifteen years in and Fugazi is just now fulfilling its promise.

No Doubt, Rock Steady (Interscope)

No Doubt - Rock Steady No Doubt
Rock Steady
By: Eric Greenwood

No Doubt"s fourth album, Rock Steady, is a rare example of mainstream pop music that doesn"t make me want to vomit blood. Before you get your holier-than-thou indie rock panties in a wad and scream that No Doubt sucks, give Rock Steady at least a perfunctory chance. Yes, of course, it"s geared up for Top Forty charting, but it"s also unabashedly catchy. The band is so gushingly sincere it"s almost embarrassing, which makes it hard to hate. Sure, there is a hokey element that you either have to accept or learn to ignore, but it"s a whole lot easier to swallow when someone like Gwen Stefani is the mouthpiece. And, anyway, No Doubt is practically a cartoon, but pop music this irresistible doesn"t happen every day.

As someone who loathed No Doubt until its fourth single off Tragic Kingdom, "Sunday Morning", I was relieved that the band had eliminated any trace of ska from its sound on the retro-experimental follow up, Return Of Saturn. In a bizarre case of bad timing or poor promotion, Return Of Saturn wasn"t the worthy successor to a career-making, multi-platinum hit like Tragic Kingdom, commercially. Musically, it far surpassed its predecessor, showing that No Doubt had more up its sleeve than lite-rock ballads and Orange County high school ska-pop. It was the best new wave album that Blondie never made.

Cashing in on the massive success that Gwen Stefani has had on duets with Moby and Eve since Return Of Saturn stiffed, No Doubt has learned from its mistakes. Regrouping much faster this time (eighteen months as opposed to five years), Rock Steady covers every commercial facet the band could possibly tap into, ranging from pop to reggae to disco to soul. This is either a testament to the band"s versatility or a desperate attempt to regain lost footing in the charts. It"s probably equal parts of both, but the versatility will outweigh any cheap chart dreams in the long run.

With an arsenal of top producers and mixers, No Doubt skitters across genres like dilettantes in the studio for the first time. Nellee Hooper should get most of the credit for the band"s sonic blossoming. The first single "Hey Baby" is a love-it-or-hate-it studio concoction full of multiple overdubs and sonic trickery. As evidenced by the band"s tepid performance of it on Saturday Night Live, the song doesn"t lend itself well to a live interpretation, but Interscope probably wouldn"t have let them play anything else. Stefani"s sulky-girl stage presence more than made up for it, though.

Titling the album Rock Steady is more than a little misleading. The reggae-dancehall-Jamaican influence is negligible at best. Sure, it creeps up here and there with Sly and Robbie producing, but the overwhelming majority of the album is pure pop. The sultry disco funk of "Hella Good" firmly cements Stefani"s status as candy-coated second-generation new wave goddess (with much help from her heavy breathing in the background). The song is a slick mix of Roxy Music, The Gap Band, and modern R&B with hooks galore. Just try not to tap your feet when it"s on.

With a few middling ballads like "Underneath It All" and "Running", Rock Steady, at times, feels like it"s sinking fast, but smart stylish pop like "Making Out" and "Detective" keep it afloat. The quirky "In My Head" may be an open letter to Stefani"s fianc", Bush"s Gavin Rossdale, but the music is smart and surprisingly experimental with it"s dark and paranoid melodies. From the opening riff of "Platinum Blonde Life" it"s obvious that Ric Ocasek was behind the boards. The Cars-like introduction explodes into typical alternative rock fare, which would blend into the woodwork without Stefani"s girlish wail.

No Doubt is a good mainstream pop band, which is a dying breed. Pop bands don"t really thrive commercially like they did in the 1980"s. You"re either a "vocal group" or a solo artist these days. "Bands" are for the alternative market, so No Doubt is kind of an anomaly. Rock Steady is frivolous pop music, yes. But it"s good frivolous pop music.

Gary Numan And Tubeway Army, Replicas (Beggars Banquet)

Gary Numan And Tubeway Army - Replicas Gary Numan And Tubeway Army
Beggars Banquet
By: Eric Greenwood

Taking the stilted, jerky structure of the first Tubeway Army album to the next logical level, Gary Numan created his own streamlined, space-age world, where synthesizers replaced guitars as the driving force behind the icy music. This was the defining moment of the synth-pop era. Numan"s obsession with syncopation makes each track blend seamlessly into the next. Critics complain that Numan"s music sounds horribly dated today. Of course they are right, but that"s hardly the point. The music rises above and beyond the constraints of new wave production techniques.

Numan"s detached, sci-fi lyrics coupled with his David Bowie-influenced yelping vocal style helped create an image of futuristic doom. His melodies are robotic, sounding cold and dejected. The nod to Kraftwerk is understood, as is the incorporation of Glam and post-punk, but Numan packaged it all like it was brand new- like he"d never even heard of T-Rex or Ziggy Stardust. The opening track, "Me, I Disconnect From You", encompasses everything that is genius about Gary Numan. His isolated and paranoid lyrics are delivered in a semi-robotic lilt that somehow sounds genuinely profound despite the obvious affectations. The overly dramatic keyboards surrender to the simplest rock formula that still sounds exciting and strange today. The pretentiousness is balanced by and unintentional silliness that makes Numan the perpetual underdog.

"Are Friends Electric?" had to sound alien when it topped the charts in England in 1979. The minor-keyed synth riff plays a call and response game with the heavily affected guitar line while Numan barks out his disjoined machinations: "so I found out your reason for the phone calls and smiles/and it hurts and I"m lonely/and I should never have tried/and I missed you tonight/it must be time to leave/you see it meant everything to me." Numan straddles the line of absurdity without any sense of irony or cynicism. He was truly caught up in the bombastic weirdness of it all much to the benefit of the music. If he"d let on that it were all a joke, he would be a forgotten blip on the musical radar today. His sincerity is the key to his longevity.

The high point of the album, though, is the new wave anthem "Down In The Park", which became a live staple and the quintessential Gary Numan song. The downtrodden beat plods behind swirling synthetic melodies and Numan"s strangest batch of lyrics: "I was in a car crash or was it the war/but I"ve never been quite the same/little white lies like "I was there."" Numan hadn"t altogether abandoned the guitar, though, as evidenced by "You Are In My Vision", which takes one simple riff and churns out a classic post-punk rocker. Never afraid of repetition, Numan pounds the riffs into your subconscious without losing its appeal.

The title track is a haunting masterpiece with its unforgettable dueling keyboard/guitar melody and Numan"s disaffected vocals. The lyrics are typically cryptic for Numan, recounting some bizarre tale involving "Mr. Wall" and the "police": "So I said do you know Mr. Wall and they looked the other way and then they smiled at me/but the police came and I said it was me and I just walked away." It"s strange how Numan can make such meaningless nonsense seem like a matter of life and death. He returns briefly to his punk-influenced youth on "It Must Have Been Years." The guitars chug aggressively, despite the wash of flange effects. The song caps Numan"s illogical sci-fi journey for this, his "concept" album.

It"s a shame that Gary Numan is only known in this country for the fluke one hit wonder, "Cars", because his first few records are the foundation upon which the music of the eighties is based. The re-issue of Replicas features the best batch of bonus tracks of any of the Beggars Banquet re-issues. These b-sides and outtakes from the Replicas sessions include "We Have A Technical" with its gorgeous synthesizer introduction (which, incidentally, was covered faithfully by Blur"s Damon Albarn and The Rentals" Matt Sharp for the Gary Numan tribute, Random) and the brilliant "We Are So Fragile."

A Camp, S/t (Stockholm)

A Camp - S/t A Camp
By: Eric Greenwood

The first solo album from The Cardigans" frontwoman, Nina Persson, is a darkly melodic affair. With Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous adding his gothic American touch to the proceedings as producer and guitarist, Persson glides through this batch of hypnotic balladry almost effortlessly. Well, it only seems so effortless because she receives tons of help from her husband, Shudder To Think"s Nathan Larson, who, along with Mercury Rev"s Jonathan Donahue, lend their talents on a crazy assortment of vintage and obscure instruments, ranging from saws to sequential circuits.

Persson’s voice is spectacular here, enveloping each song like a silvery shawl. The styles fade in and out of light electronic pop, country-tinged twang, and noisy, futuristic rock. Persson’s versatility is astounding. She coos and crows depending on the mood but always remains in absolute command of each song. It differs from The Cardigans primarily because of its musical diversity, but also because of Linkous’ edgy, idiosyncratic, and dynamic production as well as the lack of overtly upbeat songs. However, Persson"s voice is unmistakable, which makes the Cardigans connection hard to break.

Surprisingly, Persson never sounds out of place- no matter what genre she tackles. Her sultry, angelic voice drags you willingly through a kaleidoscope of emotions, wherein she shows off her diverse underground tastes by faithfully covering songs by such random acts as The Replacements ("Rock And Roll Ghost"), Daniel Johnston ("Walking The Cow"), and Restless Heart ("Bluest Eyes In Texas").

The laid back orchestration of “Frequent Flyer” relies heavily on Persson’s charmingly girlish voice to seduce you. Electronic noises bubble up in the background along with piano and organ, but the unmistakable centerpiece is Persson, who sounds like she’s humming in your ear. “I Can Buy You” is a smash country hit if I’ve ever heard one. Of course, it won’t really be a hit, but it should be. This Swede sounds more authentically country than ninety-nine percent of Nashville today. Bonnie Raitt would chop off her hands to have written such a lovely song.

When Persson harmonizes with herself in the chorus of the gentle ballad, “Angel Of Sadness”, you"ll be ready to throw yourself at her feet. She tries to shake some of the cutesy, pixie image she has garnered as the leader of The Cardigans over the years by alluding to drugs, sex, and generally seedy behavior in the sultry and alluring “Such A Bad Comedown”, but her sweet voice gives her hand away immediately. Not even singing “fuck” can tarnish her squeaky-clean image.

Aping PJ Harvey is not Persson’s forte, but even the disingenuously rocking “Hard As A Stone” has its moments. The vocal distortions (a Mark Linkous production requirement) do not become her voice at all, but the song provides a much-needed change of pace midway through the album. Getting back in step, Persson wraps her sad vocals around the gorgeous acoustic melody in “Algebra”, while the melodica sways playfully in the background. Persson emphasizes all the right notes, forcing you to realize that such grace is rare indeed.

The highlight of A Camp"s debut is the achingly beautiful "Silent Night." Not to be confused with the ubiquitous Christmas carol, this song once again showcases Persson"s tender vocals. The echo on her voice meshes so well with the vintage mellotron and the country guitar-bends, especially when she hits the high notes of the chorus. It"s sure to melt you down to a nub.

With The Cardigans still on hiatus after its unexpected foray into trip-hop on 1998"s under-appreciated Gran Turismo, Persson has created a safety net for herself with A Camp. It"s actually more of a golden parachute because as long as she"s singing, people will undoubtedly be listening- Cardigans or not. This album is already flying way under the radar with little press in this country yet, but it will probably end up being one of the top albums of the year. At least one of mine.

Baleen, Soundtrack To A Normal Life (Liquilab)

Baleen - Soundtrack To A Normal Life Baleen
Soundtrack To A Normal Life
By: Eric Greenwood

This Charlotte, North Carolina quintet fuses eerie electronics with ambient, dub textures, African polyrhythms, and a standard rock set up, creating a woozy, somewhat indulgent atmosphere akin to the sample-heavy output on the Mute Records roster, circa 1995. Baleen isn"t necessarily interested in melody, but it"s there if you look hard enough. The band seems far more absorbed in manipulating soundscapes and fusing them together in seemingly disparate contexts than anything else. This grows tiresome after a while, yielding its share of hollow experiments, but the advanced musicianship prevents too many dead ends.

With three singers, the band has several vocal registers that it toys with, ranging from falsetto to strange, white-bred soul inflections. The quirky guitar interplay on "Sweetspot" mixes well with the dark keyboards, but the diva-esque falsetto sounds out of place and forced, as though the singer were in such a hurry to show off his chops that he forgot to make them fit into the song. The somewhat cringe-worthy attempt at soul on "Unmedicated" builds into a much-improved falsetto. The influence of Radiohead looms large here; however, Baleen lacks the musical friction required to propel itself out of copycat status. Good ideas are present but just far enough out of reach that the band cannot capitalize on them.

Baleen"s musical schizophrenia becomes obvious by the time "Take A Number" rolls around. It sounds like an outtake from Love And Rockets" trippy ode to The Beatles, Earth Sun Moon. Lyrically, the band mines muddled, introspective territory. Still, it"s the best song of the album. Quickly obliterating the momentum, however, is the cover of Beethoven"s "Moonlight Sonata." Taking an instantly recognizable Beethoven melody and adding dark synth-effects is always ill advised, but Baleen throws caution to the wind by pompously flaunting its eclectic musical palate in this highly embarrassing, inessential detour.

The acoustic guitar may sound jovial on "Muted" but the eerie sound effects drape it in a gothic cape. Again the singer unwisely pursues his soul-side vocally, which is befuddling given the context of the music. "Driving Song" reveals an unforeseen penchant for prog-rock not to mention an ace Cars-like keyboard intro. If not for the DJ scratching, this song just might work. The acoustic-electronic-tomfoolery of "Perfect" is the bane of Baleen"s existence, as it exemplifies how much more the band bites off than it can chew. Instead of half-assedly mixing five genres, how about concentrating on one, first? Baleen is a band comprised of talented musicians, but as we all know this does not always translate into good songs.

Usually, bands build up to this level of experimentation, but Baleen has unwisely tackled the tough stuff on its debut. The temptation to cover so much musical ground and make an immediate impression must be overwhelming, especially when there are countless anonymous bands nipping at your heels to take your place. However, it"s always better to be really good at one thing than adequate at several. If Baleen can refocus its attention on what it excels at instead of trying to juggle so many balls, it could probably produce music far more memorable than this.