End Hits
(Dischord Records)

Being punk rock's king of rhetoric and idealism, it's often forgotten that Fugazi is also an incredibly talented band. Not many people notice anymore. The band's name either conjures memories of shows stopped so that front man Ian MacKaye could bitch out overzealous moshers or else junior-high chants of "I am a patient boy, I wait, I wait, I wait" from the early Fugazi vanguard "Waiting Room."

End Hits is a reminder that Fugazi is not only grandfather of the "emo" scene, it's also a relevant, continuously evolving organism. The first track, "Break," seems to be a reflection on the institution that Fugazi has become: "Can't ask for more/So why unfulfilled/We take apart/Everything we build." The only Fugazi constant between End Hits and the band's previous four albums is the staggering use of dynamics that goes on among the members. The band is nearly 11 years old, its members well into their 30s, so some sense of maturity is expected.

The changes are evident throughout the album, most noticeably on "No Surprise," a mostly subdued minimalist tune with blank spaces and meandering leads. Fugazi has chastened much of its harshness in favor of aural intricacies and lyrical introspection; MacKaye's usually barked vocals are often found crooning on End Hits.

As always, sociopolitics and idealism prevail as subject matter. Homelessness ("Recap Modetti"), immigration ("Place Position"), corporate vice ("Five Corporations" [side note: on paper, MacKaye's label, Dischord, is a corporation itself]) and eating disorders ("Guilford Fall") are all pontificated upon--Fugazi has something to say about everything if you give it half a chance. What makes it palatable is the immense aptitude and examined intelligence behind the music and words. Fugazi has simply become a subgenre of its own.

--Brendan Kelley

Feeling Strangely Fine
(MCA Records)

In the weeks leading up to the release of Semisonic's Feeling Strangely Fine, one could sense that even cynical music bizzers with no financial stake in the band's future were feeling cause for celebration. Radio stations were picking up on the band's single, "Closing Time," threatening to turn this Minneapolis trio from a beloved critics' favorite into a genuinely big-time rock band. It read like a classic shaggy-dog tale of success; the kind of breakthrough--like the recent one by Ben Folds Five--which suggests that there might really be some kind of order to the universe, that we may not be doomed to hear Celine Dion bleat out that stupid Titanic song for the rest of our days.

There was only one problem with the breakthrough of "Closing Time." It didn't transcend the blandness of its radio environs; it capitulated to it. Built on a stock, four-chord sequence and generic alt-rock dynamics, "Closing Time" works reasonably well as an evocation of a bartender's last call or a band's encore. But in the context of contemporary radio, the tune sounds too much like a faceless--if admittedly pleasant--mix of a million bands who've overpopulated the airwaves. In particular, it suggested how bland Everclear would be without those undercurrents of desperation and regret.

Fortunately, on Feeling Strangely Fine, "Closing Time" reveals itself to be just a hunk of red meat to satiate radio and draw listeners into the album's choicer entrees. The piano-pumping "Never You Mind" is about as good as pop circa '98 gets, a bittersweet tune sent heavenward by Dan Wilson's chorus falsetto and grounded by a bummed out--but never whiny--sense of metaphor: "Switch on the box/Mr. Spock is on the table/Dr. McCoy is unable to connect his brain."

Like its Twin Cities forebears, The Replacements and Soul Asylum, Semisonic is unabashedly straight-ahead, plain-vanilla rock that finds its identity only when the songs connect. So unprepossessing little ditties like "Secret Smile" or "Singing in My Sleep" could easily fly under your radar, until the naked beauty of their melodies meets Wilson's 10cc-meets-Crowded House vocals.

Ultimately, pop music--like football and sexual intercourse--is a game of inches. Neophytes may find little to separate Semisonic from a drab bunch of poseurs like Matchbox 20, but the small, loving details define Feeling Strangely Fine, and they separate this work of pop artistry from the blatant pieces of product that surround it.

--Gilbert Garcia

Various artists
The Big Lebowski: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
(Mercury Records)

The Coen Brothers assembled a soundtrack for The Big Lebowski that perfectly reflects the spirit of that underrated comedy--it's eclectic, utterly off the wall and full of bizarre, funny and/or sexy gems.

The movie's signature tune--Kenny Rogers' brush with hipness "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)," which accompanies the Wagner/Busby Berkeley/PBA-tour production number--is as close as the album comes to mainstream. Bob Dylan's "The Man in Me," Elvis Costello's "My Mood Swings" and Captain Beefheart's wonderful, awestruck ballad "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles" are represented, but the selections range as far afield as Meredith Monk's oddly erotic "Walking Song," the Gipsy Kings' superb mariachi spin on "Hotel California," and Ilona Steingruber, Anton Dermota and the Austrian State Radio Orchestra performing "GlYck Das Mir Verlieb" from Die Tote Stadt, Korngold's expressionist opera of 1920. In all, this has got to be one of the all-time-great collections of stoner-deadbeat music ever--for those with broad tastes, it's a great listen.

--M. V. Moorhead


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