When there's nothing in the way
There's something I've been putting off. And it's not that six-month teeth-cleaning appointment.(Though, sure, that too.) No, it's The Evens' sophomore LP, Get Evens (Amazon, eMusic). But yesterday I tucked in and submitted myself (several times), despite knowing that I wasn't gonna like it. And I didn't much.
Before you grumble about preconceived notions and bias and crap like that, understand this: I loved The Evens' first album. Loved it! It was one of my favorite records of 2005. I initially approached that puppy with trepidation too, worrying about Ian MacKaye getting all middle-aged-soft-bellied and this whole quixotic concept of punk-folk or punk unplugged or whatever you want to tag it. But the self-titled debut--God, what a delight! It was the sound of two kismet-crossed strangers coming together, a little awkwardly at first, bumping elbows as they reached for the same thing at the same time, exchanging nervous smiles, admitting that they weren't quite certain what they were doing. They were veterans to be sure, but each, like raw divorcees back on the dating scene, seemed determined to start fresh and shift the set, change the context, temper adamance, explore subtlety, sing softly. This beautiful romance--a perfect pas de deux of Amy Farina's swift, light, graceful stick and brush work and MacKaye's gruff, laconic, but amiable baritone guitar strokes--was etched onto a spare, spacious canvas. No one expected poetry from this esteemed, but let's face it, dour, pair of punk politicos. But poetry it was.
There was no way I was going to be pleasantly surprised twice. Not when the first record's charm was predicated on its sense of discovery (the musicians' and mine). So what follows isn't objective (I know, obviously), or even very fair. Get Evens, recorded a little over a year after the first album, is more confident, more professional and ... less magical. Between their first and second recordings, MacKaye and Farina toured pretty extensively, and by most accounts made a credible live showing. (I haven't caught them in person, though I did admire their tight and modest one-song set on the first Burn To Shine documentary.) So it pretty much follows that they're going to be both more ambitious and in control. The album's opening track "No Money" encapsulates this later aesthetic, kickstarting with an fierce rush of descending riffage in lockstep with beats and breathless unison singing, which barely lets up, early Fugazi-style, until this strange, sultry, bossanovaesque (or something-esque) solo breakdown/coda enters two-thirds of the way through. The song fails, but by a smidge; there's a hair too much instrumentation where silence would have sufficed and the words are delivered with just a little too much stridency.
When the record works--and in places, it does--it's because it's looser and more relaxed. Take "Get Even." Farina, the better singer of the two, leads the multi-hooked track with a punchy, pellucid vocal line that bobs and weaves through MacKaye's determined strumming. The highlight is the harmonizing, with Farina plumbing the floor of her natural range and MacKaye stretching for the higher end, peaking in this particularly pretty, drawn-out moment at the end of a chorus: Gonna get even one of these days. Which brings me to the lyrical content. Haha, do I really need to say? The thing about this kind of protest music--it's a conversation killer: Shut up and sing. Because if you've gotten this far, you're already down with The Evens' ideological objectives.
Get Even - The Evens