A word to the uninitiated: Fugazi's Ian MacKaye has made a career out of being difficult -- difficult to warm up to, difficult to define, difficult to sway, difficult to locate, difficult to analyze, difficult to criticize and, therefore, difficult not to admire on some level. As the leader of Minor Threat, the driving force behind Washington, D.C.'s "straight-edge" hard-core renaissance, MacKaye was the Reagan years' embodiment of pent-up adolescent rage, undiluted by the influence of hard drugs, booze, girlfriends or rock-star delusions of grandeur, all distractions that he and his mates vehemently preached against. Minor Threat got their point across in explosive bursts wound tighter than most of what passed for punk in those days -- let alone anything that passes for punk today. After three riveting releases in five years, Minor Threat dissolved, and MacKaye's restless spirit morphed -- with a few small interruptions along the way -- into Fugazi.
Not much about MacKaye has changed over the years. He's still a rather mysterious creature who shies away from any sort of promotion or media coverage (trying to get a recent photo of Fugazi from its label, the D.C.-based indie Dischord, is about as easy as locating a lost contact lens in a crowded mosh pit), and interviews are often a logistical nightmare. Still, Fugazi has remained a powerful, bullheaded presence in the underground, and has accomplished a good deal more than Dischord's two-paragraph band biography suggests. Essentially, MacKaye and guitarist/singer Guy Picciotto (formerly of Rites of Spring) set the tone for the band's musical forays, which are heavy, abrupt and smart. And while 1993's In on the Kill Taker was a bit of a grating bummer after the inventive clatter on 1991's Steady Diet of Nothing, the new Red Medicine steers Fugazi back onto a more engrossing track. The fact is, Fugazi could be churning out CDs for a major label right now --but then, how true to punk's D.I.Y. philosophy would that be? Ask Green Day.
Raves and wave-offs... Sure, the production is murky, but that doesn't prevent the stellar tunes from peeking through on Libertine's three-song demo. This Houston quartet, which played its first gig at Fitzgerald's on March 23, isn't much older than its new self-titled cassette. Libertine meshes the currently trendy lo-fi approach with the jangle-pop romanticism of U.K. bands such as Close Lobsters and House of Love. The result is a wholly un-Houston-ish sound that pulls you in with sweet, hummable melodies rather than high-speed, high-volume bravado.
Not so new to the music business, the Hunger has whipped up a dense meringue on its new CD, Devil Thumbs a Ride, that can be best described as industrial-lite. Lately, the Houston quintet has been a little hesitant to use the "industrial" tag; now I know why. On this, the band's third offering and its first for MCA subsidiary Universal Records, the Hunger has opted to use its noise fragments and keyboards to color, rather than dictate, the atmosphere of its songs, leaving most of the material to sink into a mushy alt-metal rut. (Think Trent Reznor on lead guitar aping the vocal style of Alice in Chains' Layne Staley.) So what you're left with, basically, is a lot of insinuated menace minus the promise of any dire consequences -- and you can't even dance to most of it. Regardless, the Hunger has wrangled a deal out of a major label, which, in this town, deserves some applause. The band will celebrate the release of Devil Thumbs a Ride Tuesday at Numbers.
Etc.... Dave Oliphant's new book, Texan Jazz (University of Texas Press), devotes 15 pages to Houston's place in the state's rich jazz history. Having a look at the "Out of Houston" chapter, the Press' resident jazz/blues musicologist Jim Sherman pointed out a few distressing omissions, including tenor sax man Donald "Duck" Wilkerson and veteran band leader Conrad Johnson. But Sherman was happy to report that the book does give long overdue recognition to Milt Larkin and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson for their contributions to the local scene. Justice Records recently finalized its deal with road-worn outlaw legend Waylon Jennings. Jennings' first release for the Houston label, Right for the Time, is slated for release May 21. Meanwhile, Justice is digging in hard behind an April 23 release by Austin-based singer/songwriter Kimmie Rhodes. The CD, titled West Texas Heaven, features duets with Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Joe Ely and Townes Van Zandt. The reggae devotees in Houston's Liberation recently reunited after a three-year hiatus; they celebrated the release of the new single "Almighty One" with a live performance March 28 at Showtime. Pace will extend its has-been series to the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion this summer, offering, among other memory-jogging events, performances by Kansas, Boston, the Steve Miller Band, Pat Benatar, Cheap Trick and Styx. Some shows worth a mention this week: funk master Maceo Parker comes to the Fabulous Satellite Lounge Thursday; Friday at Fitzgerald's, Pull My Finger, a Magnolia trio with a knack for squeezing out memorable slivers of thrash-pop glee, opens for Atticus Finch; Friday and Saturday, singer/songwriter Vince Bell appears at Anderson Fair. Also Saturday, Big Swifty, made up of local clubland vets from the Missiles, Trish and Darin and Manic Pop Thrill, celebrates the release of its self-titled debut at Mary Jane's. -- Hobart Rowland