“Red Medicine” was the first Fugazi album I ever bought when it was released. Up until this point, I’d been playing catch up.
There’s a decent argument to be made that this is their best album. It’s certainly the first salvo of the band taking their songwriting to the next level.
Right from the start, something is different. There’s the energy we’re used to. It opens with some crazy noise, but that’s not too surprising. But are those…clean guitars? And it’s an up tempo song? And is that a guitar solo (loosely defined, sure)?
And it’s like Fugazi knows this might seem strange to you and they challenge you right in the song. “I’ve got a question/how/do you like me?”
We are Fugazi and we’ve taken it to the next level!
“Bed for the Scraping” is classic Fugazi with a new Fugazi twist. Groovestastic bass/drums, Ian McKaye grunting, but the guitar work is sharper and more layered than what we’ve seen before. This is a new kind of punk rock anthem, but still has all the old school energy.
“Latest Disgrace” says “remember those weird noises at the beginning of this album? That was just a taste.” The first half of the song is bizarre, as if the guitars have been tuned differently, and everything besides Guy’s voice is muted, particularly the barely there drums by Canty. Oh, and Guy goes falsetto at one point. But then it all collapses into the kind of straight forward rocking we expect of Fugazi, it just has more power now, because it’s got new context.
“Birthday Pony” seems like it should sound like an old Fugazi song, but the production has changed it. The palm muting, the big chorus — this should be “13 Songs” era Fugazi. But the big chorus isn’t just big this time around, it’s full. There’s a texture there that we haven’t seen before. And you’re beginning to realize that Ian and Guy are pushing each other when it comes to vocals. They’re going into uncharted territory.
“Forensic Scene” is an instant classic.
And then we hit the weird stuff.
“Combination Lock” is probably the most “jam” feeling instrumental Fugazi has ever released. It feels like a song they’re just jamming on one day. “Fell, Destroyed” could be a June of ’44 song. “By You” is a crazy wall of sound with these mellow vocals by Joe Lally. “Version” is yet another instrumental, but this one features a clarinet…oh, and the bass line from another song on the album (which we haven’t gotten to yet). It’s almost like an undecipherable remix of a song that comes later on the record.
We return to more straight forward, yet no less creative, Fugazi rock with “Target.” Yet again, though, there are guitars that are strikingly not distorted, and yet the urgency of the music hasn’t lessened at all. There’s even the classic Fugazi palm mute a part by itself, then play it full blown with the rest of the band, yet it all feels much bigger. Just listen to the guitars on “Back to Base.” We’ve never heard anything like that on a Fugazi record. It’s epic. And “Downed City” is much the same, just more frenetic. It’s wonderful.
I love “Long Distance Runner.” In a lot of ways, it epitomizes “new” Fugazi. We’ve got this full, kind of notey, two guitar bit, then some bass/drums action (with appropriate level of guitar noise), and a spectacular level of loud quiet loud. It’s also works as the perfect metaphor for the band: they are long distance runners. They are constantly moving forward. They have yet to get stuck because they can’t stop. “And if I stop to catch my breath/might catch a piece of death.” No two Fugazi albums have sounded the same. No two Fugazi albums will ever sound the same, because they are still running.
I’m convinced that one of the members of Fugazi has synesthesia, because I have synesthesia and the majority of these songs are red to me (“Birthday Pony” and “Do You Like Me” are yellow). I think one of them saw the same thing when it came time to name this album.
At this point, “Red Medicine” became my second favorite Fugazi record. I don’t know that anything could dethrone “Repeater” from the top spot. “Red Medicine” would ultimately fall to #3 on my list, though, when it was all said in done. But which of the remaining records knocked it down?