The best concert moment I’ve ever seen: after completing an hour-long Knitting Factory set with partner-in-crime Kramer, Jad Fair comes back on stage, asks the audience “You want an encore?,” launches into a horribly off-key, wildly sped up a cappella reading of “Twist and Shout,” and runs back off stage. All in a span of about 90 seconds. It was about as punk as anything I’ve seen, but it was genuine and joyous, the act of a guy was so thrilled to be up on stage playing music he could barely contain himself.
When he was barely pubescent – well past Jordy’s age but far too young to be a Backstreet Boy – Jad Fair and his brother David formed Half Japanese and promptly released their debut triple album before they even tried to figure out how to play their instruments. Over the course a dozen albums, the music of Half Jap evolved (but not necessarily improved) from an undifferentiated angsty din into a tighter, more good-natured gallop. Still, the subject matter is pretty fixed throughout the band’s career arc: three parts songs about girls, one part goofy fantasy centered around horror flicks and cheap spy novels.
It’s the fantastical part of the Half Jap catalogue that points toward the direction Jad Fair takes on his new collaboration with Yo La Tengo, Strange But True. On “My Sordid Past,” a hilarious show-stopper from 1987’s Music to Strip By, Jad dreamt up his cleverest faux history (“I was a male prostitute for the FBI. . .my shocking tell-all diary has Mother Russia blushing”), half Jalmes Bond idolatry, half tabloid schlock. Sounds like he’s been canvassing the supermarkets again: the tabloid exposÃ© is both means and end on Strange But True.
This should be obvious from the song titles, which range from the absurd (“Circus Strongman Runs for PTA President”) to the really absurd (“Retired Woman Starts New Career in Monkey Fashions”) to the really really absurd (“Retired Grocer Constructs Tiny Mount Rushmore Entirely of Cheese”). Evidently, David Fair was bored one day, so he cut out tabloid captions and wrote lyrics to fit them; Jad took them to his buddies in Yo La Tengo and cut a record.
On paper, it’s a pretty fine idea: the older Jad gets (he’s got a teenage son now), the more strangely touching his quest for eternal youth becomes. And, although tabloid mags provide plenty of grist for cheap exploitation, brother David’s lyrics echo with touches of Mother Goose, not Jerry Springer. Some of Jad’s best moments on Strange But True â€“ and David’s most weirdly empathic stories â€“ come when he puts himself in place of the young ’uns: the student punished by a joking teacher who “acts like Jerry Lewis, but his jokes are twice as dumb,” the three-year old genius who “loves biology and history and math. . .her dolly and the ducky in her bath,” the circus strongman’s family “with their fire-eating, fan-dancing daughter and their dog-faced, contortionist son.” Strange But True’s single greatest asset lies in the fact that Jad, never one for ironic detachment, sings as his characters, not about them. And on some level all the characters are innocent as kids, even the aliens who abduct a Texas man are just cruisin’ for girls. It’s pleasantly shocking to discover that an album so steeped in trash culture is so guileless and sincere.
Unfortunately, the goofy sincerity isn’t always reflected in the music itself. Yo La Tengo is as consistently excellent as any living band, its last three LPs defined by varied but ultimately compatible atmospherics. On Strange But True the band capably reprises its now-familiar Velvets-meets-MBV sprawl: Electr-O-Pura on autopilot. The album would do well to heed a message that Half Jap’s amateurish puree of Iggy Stooge and Ornette Coleman always made vitally clear: most kids really like to make a racket.
Music itself takes a backseat on all but the punchiest tracks (“Principal Punishes Students with Bad Impressions and Tired Jokes,” “Shocking Fashion Victim Terrorizes Town”). This won’t keep fans of the Fairs’ boyish charm from enjoying Jad’s nasal, barely rhythmic readings or David’s impossibly endearing couplets, but it does keep Strange But True from twisting and shouting like it could.