Notes from (the Pop) Undergroundby Dave Mandl
Jad Fair & R. Stevie Moore
FairMoore, Old Gold Records 2002
FairMoore brings together two fiercely original figures in the American music underground. Jad Fair, with his brother David, was the co-founder of the hugely influential post-post-punk group Half Japanese, who, as Fair gloats on his website, "have recorded more albums than the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined." (Incidentally, that’s post-post-punk in style, not time; the group’s first, home-recorded record was released back in 1977.) Fair has also collaborated with Fred Frith, John Zorn, Yo La Tengo, Yximalloo, Daniel Johnston, Moe Tucker, and J. Mascis, to name a few. R. Stevie Moore, one of the leading lights of the eighties DIY cassette scene and certainly the most prolific, has released more than 400 tapes, LPs, and CDs of his brilliantly twisted pop music to date.
Apart from his innate talents as a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Moore has always been a master at taking in everything in the air around him, scavenging the most intriguing ideas from records both mainstream and ultra-obscure and working them into his own instantly recognizable style. Think of the Monkees at their genre-surfing best, but with a much, much larger vocabulary, an infinitely more twisted aesthetic, and a near-zero budget. Without ever losing stylistic continuity, Moore’s music has leaped between post-Beatles pop, thrash-punk, tape collage, electronic noodling, and the country music of his childhood (his father was a session bassist who played with all the top Nashville musicians of his day, including Elvis). Jad Fair’s work virtually defines "outsider music" and has inspired innumerable (and often much less sincere) imitators over the years. Half Jap’s first "real" release, the three-LP set 1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts (1979), was a molotov cocktail of almost unclassifiable anti-rock that mated the Shaggs with Jonathan Richman and late-seventies No Wave, and took all three a dozen steps further. His music has "matured" only slightly since then.
The labor on this long-overdue joint effort is split down the middle, with Fair reciting poetry over Moore’s instrumental backing (guitar/bass/drums, plus heaps of electronics, turntables, and sampling). Fair gives his words—sometimes blank verse, sometimes rhyming couplets, sometimes stream-of-consciousness drifts—a completely deadpan reading, with none of the wild vocal shenanigans usually found in his work. (It’s hard to say how much of the poetry is pre-written and how much is improvised, or for that matter how the collaborative composition process between Fair and Moore worked. More information would be helpful.) Moore’s musical backing covers even more ground than usual: walls of fuzz-guitars over a Bo Diddley groove; sample-sprinkled electro-pop; mutated seventies funk/disco; wobbly turntablism; dips into electronica; and even a slow acoustic-guitar number reminiscent of the Beatles’ "Mother Nature’s Son." Fair’s guileless poetry is relentlessly optimistic but never self-conscious or "ironic": How many other grown-ups in the year 2002 can pull off a song about chocolate donuts, or recite lines (repeatedly) like "I think you’re paradise/I think you’re red-hot," and not sound cynical? It would be nice to hear a more through-and-through collaboration between these two, but till then FairMoore is a lovely, heartfelt effort that shows both in top form.
DAVE MANDL was the Rail's former music editor. He is a freelance writer/journalist.