Album reviews: Bad Brains, ‘Into the Future,’ and the Evens, ‘The Odds’
By Mark Jenkins,
Paul “H.R.” Hudson and Ian MacKaye began their musical careers with late-1970s D.C. hardcore punk bands, and both are still performing. But while the patient MacKaye proceeded from one act to the next — Minor Threat to Fugazi to his current duo, the Evens — the mercurial H.R. cycled in and out of sync with the members of his original group, Bad Brains. The intermittently active quartet’s new album, “Into the Future,” is just its eighth album of new material in 30 years of recording, and only the seventh on which H.R. appears.
As forecast by H.R.’s original vocal model, Johnny Rotten, there is no future in pop music’s dreaming. Today, novices and veterans alike recapitulate past glories. So it’s to be expected that Bad Brains’ latest album divides neatly among three styles the band has purveyed for decades: punk, metal and reggae. If far from futuristic, the group sounds as vital here as in its early days, especially during such 100-seconds-or-less thrashers as “Say I.” It’s only H.R. who seems becalmed.
The album’s title was first announced as “Let’s Have Fun,” a reference to one of its longer, trickier numbers. “Fun” is a pop-metal romp that enlists the three instrumentalists’ fusion-jazz chops, and calls for similarly sophisticated lyrics. Instead, H.R. warbles such kindergarten-worthy lines as “music is fun/school is fun/love is fun.”
“Into the Future” includes some musical clunkers, notably the synth-reggae “Jah Love.” Most often, though, it’s H.R.’s detached singing and aimless lyrics that sap the album’s vigor. The vocalist offers mostly boilerplate Rastafarian pieties, rote shout-outs to D.C. and such musty slogans as “keep our PMA” (“positive mental attitude,” a motto borrowed from a self-help book in Bad Brains’ formative days). “Come Down” gallops in place for 85 seconds, waiting for vocals that never arrive. It might be considered a bad sign that the singer couldn’t compose even a few phrases for such a simple tune. On the other hand, a contemporary Bad Brains song without an H.R. lyric is not such a bad thing.
Words are not a problem on “The Odds,” the Evens’ third album (and first in six years). MacKaye and singer-drummer Amy Farina acutely address everything from indifferent venues (“Competing with the Till”) to the corrupting effects of this country’s prison-building boom (“Wanted Criminals”). The lyrics are less directly autobiographical than when MacKaye was chronicling adolescent discontents with Minor Threat. But that doesn’t mean they’re less passionate.
Musically, the Evens break with MacKaye’s previous bands, which played faster and harder. The interlaced vocals aren’t as strident, and that’s only partially because one of the singers is a woman. But after the two musicians’ long sabbatical, during which they had a son, they’re ready to make some noise. Many passages, and a few entire songs, are hushed folkie-rock. Yet when the tempos accelerate, and MacKaye alternates urgently between basslines and strummed vamps on his baritone guitar, the Evens do a pretty fair impression of a quartet. “Wanted Criminals” briefly blasts skyward, and “Wonder Why” even builds to a climactic drum solo.
With songs that contemplate creativity and mortality, the Evens demonstrate that punk — or punk-rooted music — can grow up smartly. Sometimes, the duo’s lineup seems limiting. More often, though, the two-musician format allows songs such as “Timothy Wright” to move in directions a conventional rock band probably wouldn’t take them. The Evens’ stripped-down style isn’t the only option for adult punk rockers, but it’s one path into the future.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.