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Wednesday, March 13, 2002

HIGH NOTES

Jad Fair: 'Words of Wisdom and Hope'


Though many consider it a dubious distinction, Jad Fair has fashioned a lasting career out of what is essentially a negative musical talent. Willfully ignorant of theory and mostly tone-deaf, Fair, first with his groundbreaking group Half Japanese and more recently as a kind of plug-in solo artist, creates beauty and excitement from the sheer force of his emotions.

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Though related stylistically to two-chord rockers like Lou Reed and Jonathan Richman, as well as to rock savants like Skip Spence and Daniel Johnston (with whom he collaborated on a '93 album that the jury is still out on), Fair's artistic temperament is probably best characterized by the size of his output: at least 50 recordings in various permutations. He works alongside anyone who will have him, a tendency that has resulted in collaborations with iconoclast popsters like The Pastels, Yo La Tengo and Kramer. Not surprisingly, these partnerships end up sounding like less than the sum of their parts, since Fair's out-there performance personality tends to dominate the proceedings.

Teenage Fanclub contain three ace singer-songwriters, so their collaboration with Fair boded ill, but the album they just released, "Words of Wisdom and Hope," is first-rate. Despite TF's top billing, it is Fair's record, and the collaborators know their place. As the leading lights of the post-grunge power-pop revival, these Scots have their Alex Chilton and their Neil Young down cold, but for Fair, they've fashioned a cool ensemble sound that resembles the Modern Lovers in their prime.

Relieved of having to keep up with chord changes, Fair is free to vent his feelings, and it's a credit to both the singer and the band that it's difficult to tell, like Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks," whether these cuts were rehearsed or made up on the spot. The corker, a seven-minute scorcher called "Crush on You," develops a repetitive ebb-and-flow of momentum, moving beyond its initial Richman-like rock primitivism and on into the mystic. The singer deliriously shouts, "All I can say is wow!" as the band push themselves one more time into the fiery breach.

Fair may try your patience with his relentless monster movie and superhero metaphors ("I'd let space aliens do an autopsy on me/If only I could be near you"), but his contemporary Michael Stipe only sings with this much abandon in his dreams. "The wondrous wonder of your wonder" is how he describes his lover's eyes in "Behold the Miracle," overflowing with feelings he can't articulate. Verbal incoherence doesn't dampen the purity of his expression a bit, and isn't that what music is all about?



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