Jad Fair began his spazz attack on the conventional pop song form in 1980, when his band Half Japanese released 1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts, which was one of the earliest attempts to emulate the naïve genius of the Shaggs and produce music unhampered by musical training. Best appreciated as an homage to outsider art, the noisy, shambling, primal album set the pattern for Fair’s entire career as a puckish provocateur who dares you to take his frequently silly, willfully untutored music seriously. Planting himself squarely on the fine line separating innocent wonder from mental deficiency (and seeming always to make the implicit argument that these are the same thing), Fair conveys the sense that he lacks some crucial restraint, some basic awareness about what constitutes normality. Though later Half Japanese efforts would feature more competent playing, from a shuffling roster of guest star players, Fair never abandoned his idiot savant persona, wherein he deadpans his simplistic lyrics about some of his favorite things: wrestlers, UFOs, monster movies, Pete Rose, and, of course, girls. The best songs on Half Japanese’s best album, Charmed Life, are those blunt confessions and invitations to love, like “Penny in the Fountain” and “Miracles Happen Everyday”, which blunt the edge of his faux-retard pose and make it seem artlessly charming.
Similarly, the best moments on Superfine are unaffected love songs: “Diamonds and Rubies” and “I Dream of Angels” are straightforward statements of affection with some of Jason Willett’s more cohesive musical backdrops, drawing equally from the Velvet Underground (a long-time fixation of Fair’s) and Captain Beefheart circa Lick My Decals Off, Baby. These songs provide entry into this difficult, diffuse album, which runs the gamut from confrontational noise to ambient soundscape to John Zornesque anti-music to heavily distorted sludge to Residents-style conceptual art. Considering that the disc has 155 songs on it if you include the bonus MP3s, you have to figure Fair and Willett were trying to pull off a stunt worthy of the Residents, and their pioneering Commercial Album, whose forty one-minute songs called into question the formulaic production of jingle-like music by an entertainment industry that worked along the same lines as manufacturing plants. Often Superfine makes the same point; you become overwhelmed by short, similar-sounding songs all anchored by a clanking, mechanical beat and shaped by atonal, arbitrary-sounding guitar squawks, evoking the incidental rhythms of a factory floor. But the superfluity of songs is more likely meant to demystify the songwriting process, to make the well of songs seem inexhaustible, and to make creativity seem always immediately accessible. Emulating the outsider artist aesthetic he has always admired, he doesn’t distinguish between the will to create and the actual act of creation; he makes a point of demonstrating through his prolificacy the fruitfulness of having no inhibitions.
While this is not an album to listen to for a sense of careful craft, many of Willett’s musical compositions are startling, diverting, and rich with the kind of nuance that seems more than a product of mere chance, even if we can’t be sure they’re not. They have some of the qualities of action paintings in that the traces of the gestures that made the music and the evidence of the energy embodied in those gestures are more important than the actual sound those gestures produced. You enjoy the convulsive drumming and the hyper-kinetic guitar strumming not for their own sake, but for their visceral projection of the musicians’ investment and commitment. Still, many songs feature interesting shifts in tempo and instrumentation that make them interesting as sound as well as symbol, and the sheer variety here makes it impossible to anticipate what’s next, no matter how many times you’ve listened to it. And while not every song works—for every successful experiment with guitar layering and sound-effect looping, there’s a failed one, and in many songs Fair’s screaming and ranting are downright irritating—there’s the luxury of having an almost endless number of songs to click through looking for one that captures your attention. And in our ultimately being satisfied by some segment of this surfeit lies the album’s greatest gift: Fair gives hope to the untalented, proving that if we refuse to edit ourselves and refuse to be discouraged, we’ll eventually, inevitably, begin to please people, even if it is by accident.
// Notes from the Road
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