Joni Mitchell once remarked, “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”. That’s certainly the case with San Francisco indie pop darlings the Fairways, who called it quits earlier this year after a six-year run. They’ve marked the occasion with the release of This is Farewell, a vault-clearer that makes me wish my introduction to the band wasn’t their swan song. The album’s liner notes comment on the irony that This is Farewell is the first time many will hear the band, but this notion is laced with optimism, and it’s a great summation of the band’s worldview: “Therein lies the beauty of the best pop music: it arrives to all of us differently, and leaves patterns of aural residue that sounds unalike to each and every pair of ears”. The Fairways—singer Brent Kenji, guitarist Andrew Leavitt, bassist Jen Cohen, and pianist/organist Keiko Kayamoto—are true romantics, and for them, having folks hear their band posthumously is better than not being heard at all.
Sonically, This is Farewell is full of gentle, warm Beatle-esque pop with just enough bite to keep it from becoming too precious. And, despite the fact that the songs were culled from various sources—previously unreleased material, limited-edition 45s, Clinton-era b-sides—This is Farewell sounds like an album proper (no bottom-of-the-barrel scrapings here). Honey-voice lead singer Kenji resigns himself to thoughts like “I’m getting further away from you today”, (on “Goodbye California”), but the band around him—especially guitarist Leavitt, who never met a twangy hook he didn’t like—make Kenji’s “terminal melancholia” (the band’s term) a beautiful thing.
Post-adolescent malaise is timeless, so it’s no surprise that much of This is Farewell sounds as if it could have been recorded at any point in the last 40 years (yes, I am aware that 40 years is not “timeless”, just go with me on this): the piano-and-handclap drive “Catch That Man”, the lively Walter Donaldson cover “Little White Lies”. Maybe it’s this “timeless” factor that helps lend an air of naïveté, or at least wonderment, to This is Farewell; no song bears the weight of millennial cynicism or snark. Kenji, in awe, notes on the muscular-coffeehouse (“espressohouse”?) folk tune “The Rain Fell Down”, that “the world is mine tonight”. On “Fine Day”, he makes like Ray Davies, fashioning a life of quiet contentedness out of looking out the window and tending to his garden.
But lest you think Kenji is too cutesy a songwriter, he displays a fine sense of humor on “Casino Lights” (“I ain’t got the money to bring you back home again”) and “Nowhere to Go”, where his narrator suggests to his girlfriend that they beat their small-town ennui by borrowing his sister’s car, driving to Georgia, and eating peaches and reading the newspaper once they get there—the song, and frankly the whole album, sounds like a West Coast Fountains of Wayne after a smart aleck-ectomy.
The lines notes allude to a band break-up fueled by “the random circumstance of post-adolescence” (bassist Cohen joined up with the Aislers Set; Kenji formed the Young Tradition), but with this set of sad, beautiful, wide-eyed songs, I can’t help but wonder if the Fairways’ collective soul wasn’t too sensitive for this world. The band was aware of its own mortality, too: the title track was the b-side to their debut single from August 1998, and on it Kenji realizes “I’m better alone / I guess I’m happy alone” before quietly exiting to a peaceful piano coda. I may not have known of them during their existence, but in death the Fairways will be missed.