Ian MacKaye has rarely indulged in mystification when explaining the processes behind his work. His philosophy, as he’s explained it, has been a kind of practical idealism. Thus, it’s a mistake to view the results of his efforts as the random successes of a creative mind. Since his first band, The Teen Idles, everything he’s released has been traceable, ethical, and organic — a matter of deliberate choosing rather than self-conscious hand-wringing. This doesn’t mean that it has always been produced out of a ferment of ideal conditions; often, MacKaye will openly admit that the way around a certain obstacle was long and the means were pragmatic. His decision to work with Southern Records in the beginning of Dischord’s history was ruled as much by business sense as it was by the UK label’s importance to punk music.
The Evens represent a kind of stripped-down afterlife for Fugazi, Dischord, and The Evens’ two members/life partners, Warmers’ drummer Amy Farina and Ian MacKaye. MacKaye posts bulletins similar to a captain’s log on the label’s website, charting Dischord’s progress for each successive stardate, and never for a minute assuming a definite future for the label even 30 years on. The Evens’ choice to play in non-traditional venues is an option that the retirement of Fugazi opened up: a decision to avoid the circuit of venues monetized by alcohol that had long sat uncomfortably with MacKaye. But the quieter aesthetic of The Evens was likewise well thought out, with the sound turned down rather than mellowed out, the baritone guitar doing much of the percussive work of the bass, and the insistent rhythmic complexity of Fugazi more than compensated for by Amy Farina. Even MacKaye’s choice to remain seated represents a deliberate symbolism, reflecting the equality between the two members of the band.
However, despite the always carefully worked out and transparently attributed processes of MacKaye, there are still some categories of unknowns between what MacKaye has openly talked about and the hidden ingredients that go into any creative effort. For example, there is the title of the record, The Odds, and the record’s cover art, a silhouette of Farina and MacKaye’s 4-year-old son. There are the lines referencing the Occupy movement: “Need a job… People need something to do; they’re getting angry.” The connection between these things seem relatively obvious to anyone prepared to read the record as a political statement about ‘the odds’ of success in an uneven society. The Evens may be quieter than their previous bands, but they’re just as politically strident. There is plenty to mine in the symbolism of The Evens calling their new album The Odds: two partners in life and music, now a family of three. Whatever the intention behind this metaphor, The Evens are still a band prepared to make provocative statements that can register with a curious mind; the young boy on the cover could be anyone’s kid facing a future overshadowed with college debt and the consequences of shady political dealings.
Despite the transparency of MacKaye’s processes, his equal partnership with Farina makes a calculation of The Evens both more simple and complex than Fugazi: less players to consider, but a more bifurcated vision — 50% MacKaye and 50% Farina. Farina is the less recognizable quantity: MacKaye, as keeper of “records” at Dischord, naturally labels his work for posterity, but these records don’t surface as frequently for Farina, an equally accomplished player with less of a curated history than MacKaye. As well as being The Evens’ drummer, she is a mural painter and was in several bands before The Evens. Her long-running former project was The Warmers, a Dischord band in which she played with Ian MacKaye’s brother. Alec MacKaye praised Farina’s halftime drumming in The Warmers, and it’s clear that her energetic, precise method of playing around the beat was essential to The Warmers sound. In The Evens, these improvisational non-intrusive techniques give space for MacKaye’s baritone guitar to fill in the missing steps in their two-part dance. One reason that The Evens still sounds like turned-down punk rather than mellow folk is that rhythm is the primary means of expression for both halves of The Evens. So while The Evens’ sound may be stripped back compared to their former bands, the interweaving of elements still depends on propulsion, accuracy, and Farina’s “furious” playing to achieve its effect. On The Odds, there is a sense in which The Evens are tensing the muscles of their quiet/loud rock within its short range. “Wanted Criminals” is a cascade of marching intentions: fast militaristic drumming and ominous statements building to a visible pulse of collective citizen’s outrage.
The dreaded adjective, predictable, is like instant strikethrough in most reviews, but though The Evens have established a fairly predictable range, it doesn’t mean we should disregard them. We know how far The Evens can go based on what they’ve told us about their performances, their political statements, and the instruments that work for their sound. The Evens aren’t a band with a U-turn up their sleeve, and those who know their work aren’t waiting for them to turn up the volume, unveil an out of place keyboard, or add a superfluous player. Having said that, The Evens could turn out to be Odd — or odder than they are. They’re not going to outrage anyone by going electric on their next album; they may, however, break something of their poised counterpoint to drag out any of the unexpected formations that crop up in the torrents of their tracks. Farina’s surprisingly soulful, raw-edged voice is just one “odd” element that could bring about change.