By Jordan Cronk | 7 December 2012
When Ian MacKaye talks, people listen. See the countless music documentary spots, interview snippets turned SEO bait, and, when the former Minor Threat and Fugazi frontman deems appropriate, his eternally ideologic and politically passionate artistic output. It’s been six years since the Evens—the doggedly elemental duo of MacKaye and his wife and drummer Amy Farina—last released an album, while it’s now been over ten since the last Fugazi record. And it’s been even longer since MacKaye sounded engaged, even peripherally, with current indie trends. But god bless him for it: this is why we listen so intently when he steps to the mic or in front of a camera, because he doesn’t suffer fools, and when he opens his mouth it’s as if your wisest uncle has returned from sabbatical to drop hard knowledge on a family adrift from their spiritual roots, perspective altered by a media-saturated culture encouraged to keep their mouths shut and wallets open.
So why spend money on this dude’s music, then? Honestly, with the day and age we live in, you don’t even have to, and many won’t. But it’s just this type of moral consideration that MacKaye advocates while still somehow giving voice to both the consumer and the artist in equal measure. MacKaye’s relationship with his audience is just that, a reciprocal dialogue between parties on both sides of a divide, one that he has essentially spent the last thirty years navigating, though over time he’s located a generous middle ground where one can sustain the other on equally fulfilling terms. If the resulting music wasn’t so worthwhile, it would be more difficult to defend the rhetoric, but the Evens have proven to be a satisfying last-career outlet for MacKaye, obviously lacking the youthful antagonism of his straight edge youth, as well the righteous post-hardcore revolution of Fugazi, but a nonetheless pointed and pure vehicle for a increasingly rare sense of artistic zeal.
In that sense, The Odds, MacKaye and Farina’s follow-up to 2006’s Get Evens (who said these two don’t have a sense of humor?), falls perfectly in line with prior Evens recordings. They obviously aren’t out to turn music on its head; MacKaye still plays undistorted baritone guitar in the fitfully darting and pivoting style he’s employed since the Fugazi days, while Farina skips deliberately between meters, regressing into loose grooves as often as she computes math-y snare and tom equations. Their music is almost purely rhythmic, stripped of all extraneous studio trickery or instrumentation, lending all three elements—guitar, drums, vox—an immediacy that would have trouble translating through additional textures. Their interplay has grown so intuitive over the years that the impassioned words can actually take a back seat to the arrangements—on occasion. At one point late in “Sooner or Later,” MacKaye and Farina cede to their slowly mounting groove so seamlessly that I’m consistently well into the following track, “Wonder Why,” before I not only realize that this is a new song, but also essentially a four-minute instrumental coda closing out the first side of the record.
But those words are still what this music hinges on. At this point MacKaye and Farina are splitting vocal duties fairly, um, evenly, and the contrast between his weathered bark and her more soulful emoting creates a dynamic equally as fascinating as their instrumental dexterity. It’s when they come together in harmony, however, that their music leaves the greatest impression. Opener “King of Kings” is led by Farina, but MacKaye buttresses her as the vocals jump at the end of certain bars, while their repeated refrain of “Jails in search of prisoners” at the close of the following track, “Wanted Criminals,” is lent a certain universality in the midst of such a pointed indictment. A similar effect is achieved on standout track “Warble Factor,” as the duo digs into lower registers to turn the simultaneously clever and critical line, “Look at those ants go / Look at those ants go / I think those ants know.” Only on “Competing with the Till” is their vocal enterprising unable to save the blunt and fairly awkward missive. Like a nervier rendition of Fugazi’s “Returning the Screw,” the track moves between a sparse narrative outlining the injustices perpetrated on the group by ignorant club owners and a twisting chorus that turns the title phrase into an easy potshot. Far better is the central metaphor of “Architects Sleep,” which keeps its targets ambiguous enough for the listener to actually read into lyrics like “There were cracks from the beginning / They used paper to cover them up.”
Yet in an era when far too few artists speak up for anything, let alone artistic sanctity, the Ian MacKaye dogma can’t help but feel refreshing, if still a bit exclusive. But at this point MacKaye is probably done gaining new fans. The Evens are for the lifers, those of us who throw our hands up in disgust at the frivolity of the indie-rock hype cycle and the corporate-backed outlets who fund and promote such hollow, self-serving music. “I’ve seen this scene before,” Farina and MacKaye sing resolutely on “Sooner or Later,” and in that moment of quiet testimony another hard truth is suggested, that maybe things aren’t all that different than they used to be after all.