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19 December 2013

Jad Fair & Kramer - 'Roll Out the Barrel' (Shimmy-Disc)

Recently, Jad Fair released a 99-song CD set called Beautiful Songs, a career retrospective. That's a pretty apt title, as both words seem to describe the man's output: beauty is a strange one, his not a traditional notion of it by any means, but nonetheless evident in his naive, gentle subject matter and constructed idiot-savant delivery. And "songs" indeed, for even in Half Japanese's most frantic and anti-melodic early work, a dedication to songcraft can still be heard. This collaboration with Kramer hails from 1988 and it's an often overlooked record, at least by me - its been on my shelf since I was in high school but I rarely give it a spin. It's a strong collection, though, as Kramer uses Fair's songs as a framework on which to hang various production and arrangement techniques. These are sometimes spooky and ethereal; he mostly avoids Galaxie 500 reverb on Fair's voice, but Don Fleming's guitar playing is atmospheric and searing on cuts like 'Bird of Prey', 'Best Left Unsaid', and 'When Is She Coming'. Other tracks are a surreal cornucopia of sound techniques, often deconstructing cover versions in that Shockabilly manner. This is around the time Bongwater was releasing Too Much Sleep and that same style of kitchen-sink addition is evident in how these are put together; and honestly, listening to Kramer's most recent release The Brill Building, as tough as I found it to get through, his approach hasn't really changed. Roll Out the Barrel, while diverse and curious, is never slick; even more clean electronic-tinged songs, such as 'Better Safe than Sorry', support rather than overpower Fair's tenor wails. The covers are possibly meat to be ironic - 'Help!', 'On the Sunny Side of the Street' - and the Penn Jilette-assisted 'Twist and Shout' and 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' are all pretty great. I fear that Jad Fair's presence might push this into 'novelty music' territory for many, who would then overlook what's a great collection of late 80's art-rock. Despite being NYC-based for so long, the Shimmy-Disc scene sounds so different now from other avant-leaning artists from that place and time, though they were all part of the same gang. Now that we've gone through a few iterations of the hip ebb and flow around song-based work from NYC (with Thurston Moore somehow remaining central to so much of it, present here too) this feels strangely contemporary in the post-everything era, or whatever a more educated cultural commentator would view the 2013 soundworld. My point: blow the dust off this and enjoy it as much as I just did.

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