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The Evens: Ian MacKaye's Post-Punk Passion

By Joe Heim
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 9, 2005; Page C01

It's not quite the reverse of Bob Dylan going electric, but the eponymous debut CD from the Evens will still come as a surprise to fans who have followed Ian MacKaye's career from his thrashing punk beginnings in the Teen Idles and Minor Threat -- bands that helped establish D.C.'s revered hardcore scene -- through his 17-plus years as Fugazi's frontman. In the Evens, with drummer Amy Farina (another veteran of the Washington scene and a former member of the Warmers), MacKaye is entering vastly different territory, creating an introspective work that is as stripped-down, subtle and quiet as his previous efforts were fierce, brazen and unforgiving.

It would be tempting, then, to describe "The Evens" as music for Fugazi fans who've grown too old and weary to still consider themselves punks. These new songs are bare-bones and intimate: MacKaye on electric baritone guitar and Farina on drums. No other instruments. It's rock, but with the reins held tight. There are no screaming choruses or ear-splitting guitars. Nothing that would kick-start a mosh pit or set off stage-diving. If such a style exists, the Evens sound like what happens when post-hardcore becomes post-post-hardcore.

The Evens' Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina, veterans of the D.C. music scene. (Dischord Records)

But if the sound of hardcore is absent on this enthralling album, its spirit and intensity remain. Somehow, the quietness, the spareness of the songs make them all the more convincing and powerful. Where Fugazi's songs build in tension before exploding into angular bits of rage-filled fury, Evens songs remain . . . even. Farina and MacKaye never stray from their reserved, almost detached delivery. Whether singing alone or together, there's an icy flatness to their voices, as if they're shrouded in a cool, blue veil. It's a style well suited to forlorn fare such as the magnificent "Sara Lee," the even moodier "Until They're Clear" and "Blessed Not Lucky," a beguiling, ethereal composition that is either a song about love or a song about a car wreck.

Other tracks address an array of issues: alienation, apathy, economic injustice, depression, authority that can't be trusted. Tried and true punk-rock topics all. MacKaye introduces the song "All These Governors," saying, "Generally, I don't speak ill of the dead. However, I may make an exception in this case." He then begins singing, launching a litany of charges against elected officials with the line, "When things should work, but don't work, that's the work of all these governors." Another song, "Mt. Pleasant Isn't," captures the enduring turmoil in that Washington community, from the riots that tore through it more than a decade ago to the ongoing gentrification that wears away at its identity.

In some ways this album is the answer to questions about how punks -- and others, for that matter -- can maintain the beliefs and energy of youth. It's a testament to keeping on when things look grim, to rediscovering yourself and reclaiming your passions long after you thought they had been lost. The album's second song, "Around the Corner," addresses this drive to hang on. On the song, the Evens pose the question, "What are you going to do if you get too weary to go on?" and then answer it: "You're not going to exit."

The Evens are scheduled to appear Friday at St. Stephen's Church, 16th and Newton streets NW.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company