Theory vs. practice

Jad Fair and Yo La Tengo prove that some collaborations are better left undone.

Prior to the release of Beck's new album, the crossover megastar's record label, Geffen, took pains to alert fans and critics that Mutations should not, under any circumstances, be considered as a follow-up to his 1996 funk-o-phonic smash, Odelay. These warnings were issued because the jam-session feel of Mutations doesn't carry the same "oomph" as Beck's prior string of insta-hits like "Devil's Haircut" and "Where It's At." By sedating consumer expectation with a little old-fashioned self-deprecation, Geffen ensured a comfortable warmth in the reception of Mutations. If anything, the label's disclaimer piqued the curiosity of Beck fans, resulting in thus-far admirable sales, and averting what could have been a rash of negative responses (see review, p. 68).

Jad Fair and Yo La Tengo

Crocodile, Friday, November 20

It could have benefited Yo La Tengo if Matador Records had taken the same marketing approach before releasing Strange But True, the influential indie trio's collaboration with Half Japanese brainiac Jad Fair. Yo La Tengo rose to newer, more accessible heights within its genre after releasing one of last year's most acclaimed albums, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, and the decision to unleash a collection of dated experimental in-jokes disguised as songs (the recordings on Strange But True are anywhere from two to four years old), then tour behind them, is poorly timed. Yo La Tengo fans—many of them newcomers—expect more bang for their concert buck, and due to the hype surrounding I Can Hear, most came to the band's recent sold-out Crocodile show expecting to hear that album's delicate sonic anthems.

What the audience got couldn't have been more disappointing: a lengthy set mostly composed of unspectacular Half Japanese songs, with Yo La Tengo grabbing a back seat to Fair's caterwauling kiddie vocals. Though Fair has become king of the geeks with seminally quirky Half Japanese (the Spinanes' Rebecca Gates even penned a tribute to him called "Jad Fair Drives Women Wild"), his anti-musicianship shtick simply doesn't belong in the same ring with the talented groove mechanism of Yo La Tengo. The band kicked off each song with a typically glorious intro, but each time Fair's emaciated frame stepped up to the mike, the mood was killed by his crude stream-of-consciousness ramblings. There are better rhymes being written on the playgrounds of America, but that didn't stop Fair from delving into his catalog of ridiculous fantasies. "Vampire" was especially jolting, with YLT singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan attempting to boost the growl-session chorus with a few snarls of his own; "From a Motel 6" had a nice oceanic feel—until Fair's annoying presence was felt; and from the torturously dull new album, a rendition of "Car Gears Stick in Reverse, Daring Driver Crosses Town Backwards" could have been a particularly amateurish entry at open-mike night.

Even diehard Half Japanese fans couldn't deny that the show should have been better; David Fair— Jad's brother and lyricist behind all the pretentious tabloid-based tunes on Strange But True—might have come along to strike a sensible balance between YLT's avant strummings and Jad's unreliable goofiness. The ramshackle group also could have devoted several more hours to rehearsal. In a phone interview before the brief tour, Kaplan noted that Fair had been in Scotland for some time, preventing them from practicing as a whole. During the show, Kaplan and his bandmates constantly switched instruments (which they had borrowed from opening act Faster Tiger) in an attempt to hit their stride, but even the double-drumming team of Kaplan and Georgia Hubley failed to overcome Fair's ineptitude. Worst of all, Fair ended the evening with horrific covers of Daniel Johnston's "Casper the Friendly Ghost" and David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel," both of which were about as pleasant as cataract surgery in the middle of an earthquake. Next time it decides to release the musty casual recordings of one of its best acts, Matador should pass out surgeon-general-type warnings—but hopefully there won't be a next time.

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