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Like the Repeater/Steady Diet of Nothing days of Operation Desert Storm, Fugazi is still keenly aware of the injustices in the world and suspicious of the bigwigs with the big bucks, suspicious of where their loyalties lie. It's even in the band's name -- Vietnam slang for "a fucked-up situation."

Appropriate timing, then, for the release of its sixth album, its most direct work since 1993's In on the Kill Taker. The last two efforts, 1995's Red Medicine and 1998's End Hits, had their moments, but in many ways they served as a laboratory for the band's always ambitious sonic experimentation. End Hits contained so many loose, freeform moments, it sounded like the band itself was a little confused.

The Argument follows the paradigm of those last two efforts, in that the classic aggro tracks are stacked up front, but this time out the softer middle is so much more digestible, it's downright juicy. The album intro, featuring cello and eerie vocal samples, seems deliberately designed to throw off expectations.

"Cashout" immediately puts any fears to rest, with Ian MacKaye reeling off a classic diatribe on eviction, "forced removal" and evil landlords. Only this time, MacKaye is more concerned with echoing the melody of Joe Lally's bass line rather than contrasting with it. Though the song's chorus packs some heat, it's Guy Picciotto's "Full Disclosure" that starts the album truly smoking. "I want out, I want out, I want out," says the lyric sheet, but it comes off like the desperate gibberish of a man strapped to a torture device, clinging desperately to his last shards of life. And the chorus is hands-down the most melodic of Fugazi's career, even featuring a studio-extra back-up singer. "Epic Problem" is MacKaye's vocal highlight, with his typically authoritarian cries of "Stop!" between every line.

Eventually, everything does stop except MacKaye singing over a muted guitar, and then Picciotto, Lally and Brendan Canty cut back in with all the force of a natural disaster. Often, Fugazi's slower tracks are momentum killers, but it's here that The Argument stands apart, thanks again to singable melodies that prop up the dour imagery and slithering tempo. "The Kill" sees Lally's first successful turn at the mike, his thin, deep voice a soothing Lee Ranaldo-like change of pace. "Strangelight" features more cello and even piano notes that chime and groove with the gusto of Centro-matic's Scott Danbom. Then, lest we forget, MacKaye screams out his Minor Threat roots on the chugging "Ex-Spectator" before wrapping up with the title track, a lighter companion to Kill Taker's "Instrument."

Fugazi is still DIY, and the band is still punk's most adventurous force.

Thank God some things never change.

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Michael Chamy