by Chad Jewett
Fugazi were punk’s greatest editors. And if that sounds like a dry, formalist way of talking about the post-hardcore supergroup’s aesthetic, perhaps consider how peerless their discography really is, and how much of that greatness is due to how thoughtfully Fugazi handled each note and nuance. Not only are there not enough sub-par Fugazi songs to fill a 7” (Red Medicine and In On The Kill Taker are particularly flawless and laser-cut), the D.C. quartet was unequaled in their fashionable sense of proportion, space, tension, and release. The best Fugazi songs manage an exactitude and attention to detail that is most of all amazing for the fact that that formal precision doesn’t come at the expense of energy, kinetics, surprise, or even hooks. Their music pays off, even as it pushes hard against the conventions of songcraft. Songs like “Turnover” and “Furniture” and “Do You Like Me” are equal parts explosive and studiously measured, and, at their best, are so explosive because they’re so studiously measured – they flare up like the big-bang endings of Hitchcock movies, and they breed tension in similar ways.
First Demo, an eleven-song collection of early tracks that would later surface on Margin Walker, Repeater, the Furniture 7”, and the band’s debut self-titled EP, underlines just how much calculus was required for the sharp, nimble alacrity one associates with Fugazi. It also highlights just how clear a sense of self the quartet always had. Moreover, the subtle but tangible differences that do surface between these initial takes and the canonical versions collected on 13 Songs, for instance, serve to illuminate the band’s imagination, and just how wide a field of possibility Fugazi was willing to entertain. Indeed, First Demo manages to have its cake and eat it too by assembling either sharper, hungrier versions of familiar classics or offering surprising fun in the form of small but compelling improvisations, changes, and whimsical (yes whimsical) ad-libs.
Take “Waiting Room” – arguably Fugazi’s signature composition – whose demo form not only features a more prickly, tense aura (Joe Lally’s bass, so often the leading role in Fugazi songs, feels especially barbed here), but which also comes up with a bit of dub-like strangeness as a flubbed Ian MacKaye vocal is spiraled into a woozy echo, then punctuated with a sheepish “Whoops!”. It’s a moment that humanizes a band become monolithic (there are a handful of funny moments, including one take being introduced as “Mustang Sally, Take One”, delivered with an audible shit-eating-grin), but it also serves to emphasize how economical Fugazi could be: even a miscue could be turned into a compelling aesthetic choice, a left-field idea that just happens to work, and work well. Elsewhere, “Furniture” (which wouldn’t be officially released for another twelve years) is more spacious and free-form than the drum-tight version that would show up on the garage-punk sprint Furniture EP. The strict, sinewy guitar of the official version is replaced by loose-limbed bass, emphasizing the song’s considerable groove; the EP version is precise and brief where this version roams for an additional thirty seconds. On First Demo, “Furniture” comes complete with the kind of icy echoes that normally emanate from whatever cave on Hoth Joy Division recorded in, a more atmospheric substitute for the vacuum-sealed tightness of the 2001 recording.
If these differences seem academic, consider that there is also a very real sense of urgency and vitality to First Demo that is anything but. The release gives you the rare opportunity to hear a group of young, cerebral artists swept away in their own ideas, aggressively free of the strictures of punk and hardcore, and endlessly thoughtful about what could happen next. Consider the rickety barrelhouse piano that chatters beneath “Merchandise” or the noise paintings that cut through “Joe #1” and “Badmouth”, all the ways that Fugazi were playing with what must have felt like galaxies of wide open space following the furious density of Rites of Spring, Embrace, and Minor Threat. Somehow, First Demo manages to stand on its own as a fascinating glimpse at an endlessly curious, forever hungry group of musicians, even while it illuminates the cemented versions it shadows; it is the rare dug-up curio that is undeniably worth the time.