Jad Fair and Yo La Tengo: Strange but True

Jad Fair and Yo La Tengo
Strange but True

THE CONCEPT BEHIND this record--22 songs drawing their inspiration from supermarket tabloid headlines--is so amusing that it's surprising nobody thought of it until now (with the possible exception of novelist Robert Olen Butler in his Tabloid Dreams of 1997). Years have passed since key indie-rock influences (Unrest, Pussy Galore, Butthole Surfers) indulged the subculture's fetish for junk and sleaze culture. Yet for all the guitar-wonking tabloid readers from here to Hoboken, none has tried anything quite like this. It's hard to blame them. After all, ridiculing National Enquirer culture is a bit like skewering the WWF: Any Irony 101 graduate can take a stab, but it takes a subtle wit to make the proper satirical incisions.

The coconspirators who appear on Strange but True handle their novelty record with good taste and great humor, refraining from mere mockery. Instead they add unexpected twists to the chosen stories, and support the jape with Yo La's weeping guitars and Mo Tucker beat. In fact, a casual listen could allow one to miss the songs' SCANDALOUS!!! subject matter altogether--until, that is, the listener realizes these tunes come with titles like "Helpful Monkey Wallpapers Entire Home" and "Feisty Millionaire Fills Potholes with Hundred-Dollar Bills."

While the marquee vaunts the lauded Hoboken trio (who provide the loosely structured instrumentation) and cuddle-core patriarch Jad Fair (who sings them), the unsung hero of the album is David Fair, Jad's big brother and original foil in the once-great Half Japanese. It's David Fair who read the headlines that inspired the lyrics, and penned the lyrics that inspired the album, and it's the subtlety and humor he injects into the words that make Strange but True more than an All-Stars of Indie Rock hootenanny. Yo La frontman Ira Kaplan's ever-reliable guitar playing and Jad's equally reliable lack of vocal prowess make for nice juxtapositions on "Texas Man Abducted by Aliens for Outer Space Joy Ride," but it's the lyrics' revelation that "they made me pay for gas" which wins the laugh. On "Embarrassed Teen Accidentally Uses Valuable Rare Postage Stamp," our protagonist is relieved to discover that "the stamp was worth half a grand, [and] insured for a grand-and-a-half." When an "X-Ray Reveals Doctor Left Wristwatch Inside Patient," the doctor shrugs away the mistake: "Glad it's a watch and not a cuckoo clock!"

And there are 19 more wacky numbers where those came from. Hmm, glad it's a one-off and not a career move.

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