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This Is Not a Fugazi Review

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The closest to punk I come is a love of Fugazi, and I really do my best to not saddle them with the “punk” description (and really, they’re not punk – they’re emo.) They are far too thoughtful as musicians, far too interested in creating thought-provoking music, to simply dump them into such a limited and limiting category. Anyone familiar with music critics knows that the 70s boom of punk is a favored period, for punk came in an destroyed what atrocities were being committed upon music at the time (disco, namely, but also the increasingly meaningless parade of prog-rock concept-albums.) I think, in a roundabout way, we may be able to attritribute Phil Collins’ butchering of Genesis by the early 80s to the reaction of listeners to punk. It’s not such a stretch of the imagination to conclude that Phil & Co. realized their 8-10 minute epics were sadly a thing of the past and instead should focus on dance-pop and insipid ballads. They had bills to pay too.

I, however, am not into punk. Those familiar with punk will find it humorous that on a recent CD buying trip I picked up a 2 CD set of Friction, who were not the Friction that I had in mind when I laid down my cash. No, when I saw “Friction” a brief memory of a really interesting band who mysteriously had a collection on jazz/avant-garde freak John Zorn’s label. This Friction, however, was not the really interesting band, nor did this particular collection contain anything really all that interesting to me. For it’s time, the punk Friction might have been a bit forward thinking, as it predates the Bad Religion clones we hear today. Given a choice, I would happily listen to punk descended from the Bad Religion branch of the anarchist tree – the other choice seemingly being limited these days to the “happy” pop-punk that sprouts from the stunted growth that is Green Day’s side of the tree. Green Day seemed to agree, as they slowly evolved into a Bad Religion inspired band as fans slipped away from them.

I worked at a sort-of music store in college. We really sold music-shirts (but also a collection of tempting bootlegs) and the pre-requisite Dr. Martens boots – you weren’t cool unless you had a pair. I wasn’t cool. One shirt we had was the very popular “This Is Not A Fugazi Shirt” shirt, worn by punk/emo/music fans everywhere. Fugazi is one of those bands who are anti-commecialization, opting instead to sacrifice their profits to make sure the music gets out to fans. CDs are marked with both their price as well as an address to send money to buy it, in case your local record store won’t follow their insistance on the $10- and $11.99 max sticker price, and their live shows are legendarily still priced as low as can be – I recall seeing prices of $6, $10, $12 for shows that have come here over the years. Fugazi also did not sell merchandise like t-shirts, because they were a ripoff to fans and went against their ethic. Someone, however, cleverly decided to sell not-Fugazi shirts and as such, they were bootleg shirts that are perfectly legal. Nowhere on the shirt does it claim it IS a Fugazi shirt, and makes the point obvious in big, bold blue letters. But in doing so, it aserts that it is indeed a Fugazi shirt, just as does Magritte’s painting of a tobacco pipe, titled Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“this is not a pipe”). (I won’t get into the fact that his work really is not a pipe, but a painting of a pipe. It doesn’t suit my purpose here, but poses all kinds of interesting philosophical questions that I’ll let you ponder.)

Talk of punk, Magritte, and John Zorn aside, this is not a Fugazi review.

Artist: Tortoise
Title: Tortoise

Year: 1994
Label: Thrill Jockey

I suppose the most effective argument I could make to indicate that this album got under my skin is that during the fourth track, titled “Onions Wrapped in Rubber,” I was imagining scenes from the 1986 sci-fi thriller Aliens. Static-ridden visions of the Marines making their way through the dark recesses of the powerplant crossed my mind as the dull bass and drums ebbed and flowed in a mesmerising pattern. A chiming beep sounds throughout the track, further bringing to mind images from Aliens – the Marines located moving Aliens on handheld scanners that would beep in a similar fashion. The decisive moment came when I glimpsed a dark shape out of the corner of my eye and nearly jumped – heart pounding for just a moment – until I realized that the shape I saw leaning toward me was my jacket.

This is not to say that Tortoise is filled with “scary” music – it simply evokes a mood, and that track happened to be just enough on the creepy side to put the spook in me. The rest of the album is generally much less sinister, preferring instead to lean toward “introspective” via slowly building instrumental tracks (some may have vocals far in the background, but they aren’t lyrics and simply add to the atmosphere.) Each track takes its time as instruments are gathered from silence, and often the same rhythms and motifs are simply repeated over and over until all instruments have taken their places on the sound stage. This is the kind of music that has to find the correct place to be heard. It doesn’t demand attention necessarily, because the music fills in its own blanks, but it deserves solitude to really appreciate it. In other words, this is “stroke your goatee and say ‘hmm, yes, this is intriguing‘” record-shop geek music. Luckily, I have the required goatee and a love of wandering the aisles in record shops.

Closing track “Cornpone Brunch” opens with the same snippet of 60’s BBC radio commercial that The Who’s Sell Out does (just before crashing into the careening mayhem of “Armenia City In The Sky,”) making me realize that this may have been for an effect – Tortoise is precisely not The Who. Just what that means, I don’t know exactly, but it made me make the comparison momentarily, even if nothing came of it. Which is a suitable way to sum up this album – it won’t come in and shock you with brave new statements but it slowly creeps into your consciousness. And maybe lays an egg there – but maybe that’s just Aliens again.

As indie-rock as Tortoise may be, as far as I know, they sell t-shirts.

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About Tom Johnson

  • Eric Olsen

    Very interesting Tom – welcome!

  • Richie

    The fact that you would label Fugazi as an ’emo’ band over a punk band is a very unflattering statement. As a genre, ’emo’ is often described as “hardcore for girls” bands such as The Get up kids, Alkaline Trio and suchlike have all touted themselves as Emo and to tarnish Fugazi with the same brush seems criminal. Although typifying a band as Punk draws general comparision with mainly modern acts such as Green Day, Blink 182, Less than Jake and the rest of the awful SoCal music movement of the 90’s, the original connotation of Punk being a style that promotes anti-consumerism, no-conformity and a deliberate and often aggressive & challenging musical output seems to rest much more soundly with what Fugazi produce. To even label the band at all rides against everything they stand for and Im sure the band feel as if their faces have been slapped everytime it happens. The main man Ian himself even admitted to feeling physically sick everytime he was faced with a kid wearing a straight-edge T-Shirt, a phrase he deeply regrets coining in the eighties. Sorry to be so anal with my disection of your statement, but you should never wax lyrical and give someone the option of being able to shoot you down. In future cop-out like most people and simply define them as “post-hardcore” “post-rock” or “post-punk” like we do for every other band that’s too quirky to pigeon-hole, ie, Quicksand, Oneida, Modest Mouse etc, and save yourself from a verbal slapping from someone with nothing better to do (a la – me). Adios.

  • http://www.thebeautifullull.com Tom Johnson

    Did you actually read what I said, Richie, or did you just react blindly to that one word? I know you think you’ve knocked me down a notch or two, but when I’ve got the music bible backing me up – AllMusicGuide – all you prove to do is make yourself look the fool. I refer you to AllMusic’s page about emo. And I quote: “Fugazi became the definitive early emo band . . . ”

    Richie, next time do your homework, saving all of us from having to read your verbal vomit, and me having to deliver an actual verbal slapping that means something.

    By the way, using the word “quirky” in the context of a band is generally considered pretty tacky and cliche – it’s what bad writers do when they lack the ability to label something. It’s a meaningless label that is easily thrown around and helps you feel like you know something when you don’t. That, by the way, was my second verbal slapping. Not quite packing the roundhouse power-punch of my first one, but semantics is a pretty dorky thing to argue over anyway.

    Oh, and lighten up.

  • http://www.eugenemirman.com BennyNailbiter

    Sorry to disappoint Tom, but most would agree that Rites of Spring, not Fugazi, was, if you must (!), the original, and therefore definitive, Emo band.

    And Tom I did read your article, and you did say bluntly that Fugazi are emo, not punk.

    They are neither. They are simply loud rock that we all listened to and danced to when we were 12, and when we were drunk in college.

    Even those of us who considers ourselves artists fit this fan category. Sad but true. Time to move on to Leon Redbone, and the sweet soft sounds of our new lives. He he. Or Don Redman and the great early jazz sounds!!! Whoaa!!! Or Bix!!!! Holy Moly!!!!

    Peace out

  • http://www.knownjohnson.com Tom

    BennyNailbiter, I will kindly refer you to my response to Richie, #3, directly above your response to me. It answers your question. Whether or not Fugazi was first or not is irrelevent. They are the DEFINITIVE band of the genre that has unfortunately become completely meaningless in the past 5 years or so.

    It’s also nice to know that you are so superior that you can dismiss good music as simply “loud rock that we all listened to and danced to when we were 12, and when we were drunk in college.” There are, however, some of us at 33 years old and even older that continue to listen to and enjoy this music, long out of college and completely sober. May I suggest that you revisit what you have so easily written off as the folly of silly drunken college students? Just because you graduate doesn’t mean you have to give up the “loud rock,” you know.

  • Spiffy McFrugalberry

    To everybody,
    I may not be as old as you, but I do know a lot about the 70’s-80’s punk movements. Yes, Fugazi was an emo band, however, they were also a punk band. Fugazi was one of the punk bands that did something different. They combined emo(invented by Rites of Spring), hardcore(invented by Bad Brains), punk(invented by Ramones), and many others. They are not a band to be classified, as #1-it is against what they stand for and #2 they were a constantly evolving band(as many other bands were, example-Dead Kennedys) I understand where all of you are coming from. I am not trying to shoot anybody down. I just want to say, you all have good points and bad points. Now, on to the subject of all punk bands sounding the same. As I stated before, many punk bands evolved. Punk really only started to sound the same during the mid-to-late 80’s. There are bands such as GBH, who sounded much like the other bands because the genre was degenerating. Punk, like Fugazi, is not easily defined. You have on one hand Circle Jerks, who have a 14-songs-in-15-minutes album, and on the other you have X-ray Spex, a much slower band with a sax player. What I want to say is that you can label something punk, but that is such an enormous genre that it could mean almost anything. It could mean it is psychobilly, hardcore, pop-punk, emo, grunge, skacore, crossover, and the list goes on for pages and pages. Tom, I enjoyed your article. I just want to point out a few things in everybody’s arguments. You are all right and wrong. Remember, after they did “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “I Wanna Be Sedated”, the Ramones went through some huge changes(listen to their album “Too Tough To Die” for proof). So, Fugazi is punk(see the part about the variations). Or rather, Fugazi is just Fugazi. No genre, no label, no commercialism. Fugazi is a band that speaks out against these things, and acts on their words.
    I do not mean to tear people down, it’s not what I’m about. I am a fan the same as all of you. Plus, would Ian MacKaye want his fans bickering like this? Think about that before you start fighting about him.

  • [removed by comments editor]

    Wow! I didn’t know that anyone could be as immature and inane as Tom Johnson in comment #3. You need not be so contentious and disputatious, Tom. The ad hominem attacks are so unwarranted. The extent to which you take yourself seriously is laughable. “Oh, and lighten up.” Give me a break!

    “They are far too thoughtful as musicians, far too interested in creating thought-provoking music, to simply dump them into such a limited and limiting category.”

    I don’t know where you think you get the authority to say that ALL punk bands aren’t thoughtful.

    [Commenter, personal attacks are not allowed on Blogcritics, so please do not do so by choosing an insulting screen name.

    Assistant Comments Editor]

  • http://www.knownjohnson.com Tom Johnson

    Well, you sure showed me.