The tired thought about two-piece bands is that “less is more,” but the truth is, for most stripped-down rock bands, the goal is do as much or more than groups with many members at its disposal.
What is so striking about The Odds, the third album from The Evens, is how full their strictly minimalist approach feels, and how well it suits their songs.
The Evens can't really be talked about without discussing the pedigree of everyone involved. Both baritone guitarist Ian MacKaye and drummer Amy Farina are Washington, D.C. punk legends, spearheading hardcore punk and emo in bands like Minor Threat, Fugazi and The Warmers. MacKaye co-founded Dischord Records, which, besides The Odds, has released other notable albums by bands like Nation of Ulysses, Rites of Spring, and Lungfish.
MacKaye seems to have found a suitable foil in Farina, as their vocals and instruments balance one another expertly. Songs like “Let's Get Well” move from western strumming to jazzy cymbal rides in seamless fashion, while others roll along on snare fills.
MacKaye has never been a particularly talented singer - legend has it that Minor Threat broke up because he couldn't sing the U2-like songs his band mates were writing - but here his more subdued voice suits the music perfectly. Farina is far more than a backup singer, however. On most songs they trade lines, or switch off on verses. This lends the tracks a spontaneous feel, as if they were singing the words as they came to them. It's a fascinating combo.
The songs also possess a tight energy, building intensity as they hurtle along. MacKaye has become a master at writing concise, slightly dissonant licks like the one that drives “Warble Factor,” all slides and trills. It doesn't hurt that on The Odds, he's written some of the best of his over thirty-year career. As the strangely distortion-free guitar strums, Farina lays down beats that are minimalist in every sense of the word, hardly varying from hi-hat, snare and bass drum.
With only occasional help from other instruments the duo build cacophonies and lullabies, which are often not too far from one another. Opener “King of Kings” rattles along on a beat that feels like it's moving at half-speed, while MacKaye and Farina raise their voices above it. It is transcendent music played fast and loose.
Lyrically, every one of these songs delivers as well. “Wanted Criminals” turns that phrase on its head to critique the prison-industrial complex, while “Competing with the Till” discusses the often-contradictory worlds of music performance and business. My favorite, “Let's Get Well,” lays out the inevitable failure of all human endeavors. “The birds don't give a damn about the markets,” it tells us, and neither does a record this brazenly anti-pop.
The Odds feels like a distillation of all those years of post-hardcore tradition, pushed through the group's dual-vocal, bare-bones attack and emerging as something new and exciting.
It shouldn't be surprising that a pair of punk veterans can bust out this excellent of an album, but here I am, floored. The Evens has delivered a vital record with The Odds. Don't sleep on it.