For The Sake of 'Argument'

Arm Wrestling Over Fugazi's New Record
The Argument
Dischord Records


At one point in Jem Cohen's 1999 band documentary Instrument, the members of Fugazi amuse themselves by exchanging the faux-punchy praise of music journalists: "Guy, you're the Danny Kaye of hip hop." "Thanks, you're the Buddy Hackett of lounge." "You're the George Burns of trance." And so on.

Rock criticism, as you might guess from this exchange, has not done well by the Jack Bennys of post-hardcore. Robert Christgau set aside space in his latest book to dismiss Fugazi singer-guitarist Ian MacKaye as "a musical puritan as well as all the other kinds," a blow softened only by a respectful acknowledgment of the band's most publicized virtue: its DIY business scruples. Really, though, those scruples are what damns them. If Fugazi once hoped to blow past music-industry self-regard, their anti-hype became its own sort of hype instead. Now skeptics who resent famous virtue (what does integrity have to do with art?) sell short these no-sellouts.

At least Christgau's point is suggestive: Puritans are as obsessed with what we shouldn't be doing as what we should, and the band's early sound seemed as much about what it wasn't as what it was. Fugazi's debut EP presented crunchiness as funk, not metal; dub as an influence, not a style; punk as life, not as rock. But for someone to hear self-denial in all that sensuous noise requires an annoyance with something other than the music itself, I suspect. Which is fair enough, since loving Fugazi always required an alliance with something other than music, too. Lately, after years of not really minding the group's liberatory rallies-as-songs, I suddenly find myself needing them.

I won't waste time trying to convince you that the group's eighth full-length CD is a "breakthrough," though The Argument shows some of the earmarks. By my count there are four great songs, five groovy ones, one nice try, plus the addition of a cello, a second drummer, and female backup singers (Bridget Cross of Unrest and Kathi Wilcox of Bikini Kill). The title track's melody is as quietly moving as anything on the new Radiohead. But that's at least in part because MacKaye has the gall to sing the politics Thom Yorke keeps to himself. With unsettling clairvoyance, "Argument" laments how "some punk could argue some moral abc's/When people are catching what bombers release." Singer-guitarist Guy Picciotto's Pixies-like "Life and Limb" breathily coos, "Hey, we want our violence doubled (no but really in a loving way)"--a sarcastic jingle for the official use of force (yay torture!). And bassist Joe Lally's quiet, Pink Floyd-in-Black Ark Studio groovescape "The Kill" contains this resigned death-row refrain: "I'm not a citizen."

For lonely skeptics of violence in any form, this music is our American flag. You'll excuse me if I cling to it.

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