Though I may very well end up in some lesser indie rock hell for suggesting it, the latest offering from Mr. Jad Fair — a 155-track collaboration with Jason Willett — is a bit of a train wreck. Actually, it’s a little worse than a train wreck. It’s a train wreck that you have to watch occur.
An awkward mix of lo-fi pop, dissonant noise rock, and looped tape samples, the bulk of this bulky disc always feels on the brink of collapsing and falling apart. While some musicians consciously toy with the tension of their songs unraveling at any given moment, Fair and Willett just sound unable to hold anything together.
Case in point: the jerky guitar rhythms, off-tempo junk percussion, and whined vocals of “Give it a Go,” a track which sort of stumbles around for a minute of two without really taking the listener anywhere. Or “Transform,” where Willett can’t seem to decide what dissonant guitar noises or quirky samples to place beneath Fair’s shouts. Or “Punk Rock 1996 Pt. 6,” where Fair screams and shrieks his head off over dull bass, senselessly arhythmic guitar, and random drum hits that never manage to come together. (I get what I think is the implied joke here. But even as a slice of satire — think the repeating, repeating, repeating dirge measures of Cop Shoot Cop’s “Seattle” — this doesn’t quite work.)
Fair and Willett manage to hint at some enticing material throughout, but often they don’t do much more than hint at it. The sampled loops of the album-opening “Movies” seem to sound vaguely like the ambitious sound layers that Steve Fisk cooked up for Steven Jesse Bernstein on the wickedly engaging Prison. In that collaboration, however, Fisk provided sounds that were textured and nuanced but also had strange extramusical connections to Bernstein’s contemporary nightmare portraits. For all of their explorations of sound, Fair and Willett just seem to love the noise.
The more song-oriented tracks on the record succeed a bit better, though only in scattered dribs and drabs. The detuned acoustic skip of “Take Your Place” is a fun little romp, a somewhat light-hearted piece that sounds a little like Bill Callahan circa Julius Caesar or Forgotten Foundation. Though marred by occasionally over-zealous vocals from Fair, “Big Star” is a lo-fi, Shadowy Men spy theme of sorts, all reverbed electric guitar and occasional keyboards.
“Diamonds & Gold” — which follows the King Kong grooves of “Diamonds & Rubies” — may be one of the most surprising songs on the whole record: a gentle, swaying semi-ballad for acoustic and electric guitar that avoids the dissonance of the work that surrounds it.
A few tracks later, the record closes with “Superfine Pt. 2,” a piece built around piano, horns, and vocals that avoids the noisy pratfalls that hurt much of the record. Listening to the way the piano moves between Fair’s toned-down vocal delivery, you’re almost surprised to hear the duo not launch into an ill-advised blast of found sounds or a dissonant guitar bridge.
Those who follow Fair religiously will probably be quite taken by the record, if only due to the pure scope and volume of work that it includes. In addition to the 20 CD tracks, the record boasts 135 additional MP3s. Yes, 135. While some of the MP3 tracks are well worth a listen — many are actually better than the 20 tracks the duo chose as their primary material — I don’t know how many will wade into them and I’m also not 100% sure if it’s entirely worth their while.
Fair and Willett may have enjoyed releasing to the public every single piece of their recent collaboration, but instead of creating a body of varied and eclectic – albeit long-winded – lo-fi indie rock, they’ve put together a record whose interesting moments are overpowered by the B-rate material they’ve also chosen to air.
Superfine is not without its interesting moments, and some K Records devotees will surely smile at much of what appears herein, but it’s also not without moments that make you wonder why the best of this collaboration couldn’t have been instead featured on an EP or a regional compilation. – Delusions of Adequacy, May 5, 2003