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I’m in love with rock ‘n’ roll and I’ll be out all night. Jonathan Richman
At the end of Half Japanese’s immortal cover of “Tangled Up in Blue,” frontman Jad Fair screams, “I’m not tangled up in blues [sic]/I’m tangled up in…LOVE!” as a cacophony from God’s own basement erupts in the background. Over the course of their stellar careers, both Fair and the three members of Yo La Tengo have amply demonstrated how rock ‘n’ roll agape translates into some pretty astonishing sounds. That which drove Jay Gatsby to reach for the green light and build impossible worlds for Daisy is the same breathless need that fuels these Amerindie vets: They are romantics.
It’s something of a bummer to see that atavistic urge channeled into the slight but entertaining Strange but True. The (intentionally) tossed-off collaboration amounts to little more than an exercise in ruled composition: Jad sings words provided by his brother (and sometime partner in Half Japanese) David, while Yo La improvises tunes in the background, the lyrics inspired by supermarket tabloids, both real and imagined. It does have its moments; to hear it is to know the band’s doe-eyed adoration for the furtive backbeat, the steady organ drone, and that shudder up the spine when a chord change gets you right there. Presumably because the band was making it up on the spot, Yo La thrums out some of the most Yo-La-qua-Yo-La music of its career. But the set is never more than the sum of its parts, and one is left with a mere placeholder from folks who have made several immortal records.
God (only) knows everyone involved has done better. Since forming the band in the mid-’80s, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan and his wife, Georgia Hubley, have honed an aesthetic that made them the best advertisement for Hoboken since Sinatra. Following two pleasant but interchangeable LPs, 1989’s President combines Crazy Horse guitar blowouts with sturdy riffs and a lyricism that never swapped clever for snide. “Barnaby, Hardly Working” is a hypnotic and impressionistic tale of unrequited love, while “Drug Test” is the best tribute to the Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood ever written. This was a recombinant, joyous music for rock fans by rock fans; no band has ever had less of an urge to destroy rock ‘n’ roll. Fakebook’s acoustic summer-crush covers and May I Sing With Me’s busted amp freakouts highlighted both sides of the band, which seemed destined to make records for its hardcore devotees and few others.
So it was both remarkable and inspiring to see 1993’s Painful seamlessly integrate the band’s classic pop fixations with an overdriven, up-to-the-minute haze of organ and guitar that anyone from My Bloody Valentine to the Dead C would be proud to call their own. The follow-up Electr-o-Pura and the erratic but intimate 1997 record I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One added and subtracted elements from Painful’s muzzy vibe, establishing Yo La as one of the few guitar rock bands of the ’90s who stayed modern without resorting (much) to compulsive trend hopping. What was once charmingly cobbled together is now wholly its own.
To Yo La’s credit, the brief songs on Strange are improvised and diverse without being abstract or indulgent (no more than the album’s premise dictates, anyway). “High School Shop Constructs Bicycle Built for 26” is spare and restless, where “Helpful Monkey Wallpapers Entire Home” has a steady, shimmering glow. There’s nothing on here radically new for the band, but its interaction on these one-take slivers is flawless, and provides a diverse palette upon which Jad busts out his famous whine.
And what a whine it is, too. It seems pretty obvious from both their fannish leanings and their movement around Jad’s voice on Strange that Kaplan and Hubley and bass player James McNew have every scrap of wax the man ever spat upon, and why shouldn’t they? Under the name Half Japanese, longtime Maryland resident Jad and his brother birthed the most blissfully excessive debut album maybe ever. The three LPs that make up 1980’s Half Gentlemen/Not Beasts exhibit rock id unsullied by skill or actual chords, unschooled aural gesture in blindingly immaculate form. Drums are strummed, guitars are hit, lyrics about girls, money, girls, animals, and girls are blurted utterly without fear. Buy it tomorrow. Since then, Jad and a rotating cast of friends have made album after (Half Japanese and solo) album of unvarnished rock jubilance, filled with tunes that many people mistake as primitive and silly when they are merely guileless. The most telling moment in Jeff Feuerzeig’s impossibly great Half Japanese documentary, The Band That Would Be King, comes when David comments that the band never tried to play badly intentionally; in fact, it always played as well as it possibly could all the time, no matter how raw it sounded.
Both Jad and Yo La come from a feet-first school of crash and choogle, where a desire to express refined itself over time into a deeply organic sound. Which points to Strange but True’s most compelling element: Yo La brings a gentle order and grace to the proceedings. After all, Jad does have to tell his tales of Mt. Rushmores made out of cheese and hungry vampire bats over these on-the-spot tunes. Yo La’s improvs are far less jagged than most Half Japanese records, and Jad provides, well, Jad. He’s underground rock’s Christopher Walken: If you want someone like him, he’s really your only option. Hey, for good or ill, no one else on earth could deliver two different versions of a song called “Clumsy Grandmother Serves Delicious Dessert by Mistake.”
What saves all of this (barely, mind you) from descending into aimless tape-wastage is the participants’ devotion to the process. Throughout Strange but True, Jad and Yo La Tengo prove in small brush strokes and easy gestures what the best rock bands know cold: The music’s root integer is motion as a unit, teamwork as seamless as humanly possible. The best rock requires a lovelike ego squish, the joyful sublimation of the self for another. Even on a set as unsubstantial as Strange but True, it’s clear that Yo La and Jad know such sensations like the backs of their amps. CP
Jad Fair and Yo La Tengo play the Black Cat Nov. 14.