Solid Gold Weirdos

CS534438-01B-BIG

Solid Gold Heart
Jad Fair & Danielson
Sounds Familyre, 2014

By Matt Meade

When I was nine, I used a Panasonic portable tape recorder to record a rock and roll song that I wrote entitled “Power Rock.”  There were no instruments.  There was no band.  It was just me singing the words of this song over and over again.

Power rock.  P-p-p power rock
Rocking with the power of …
Power rock.  P-p-p power rock

That was the chorus.  There were verses too.  They were about what a cool dude I was.  And how powerfully I rocked.  And also, maybe, about Double Dragon, which I was really into at the time.

It was predictably terrible and embarrassing, especially when my parents unearthed it a few years later when they were looking for their dub of a Phil Collins record and they played my roughly recorded song on the family stereo and laughed at me.

I never recorded a follow up to what I conceived as a Jethro Tull-esque concept record about rocking and video games, but had I done so, the names of the songs would have been quite similar to the songs on Jad Fair & Danielson’s Solid Gold Heart.  I may have been able to come up with ebullient and seemingly banal songtitles like Ready Steady,”Go Ahead,” and “Rockin on the Good Side,” some other artist may have had the gumption to write an 11 track LP featuring food as prominent metaphor, but no one besides these two nonconformists could have ever captured the technicolor vibrancy, the bizarre and beautiful tone that is on display on this record.

At first glance, the oblong intersection of the Venn diagram representing the overlap of rock and roll auteurs Jad Fair and Daniel Smith seems very small.  On one side is a deconstructionist No Wave innovator whose band is so stripped down it is sometimes only comprised of two people, and on the other side is the devoutly Christian frontman of a sprawling band the members of which often wear matching homemade outfits and who uses his music to minister to believers and non-believers alike.

But when you squint it becomes increasingly difficult to tell these two cats apart.  I ask you, which of these two musicians enlists the help of his own family to complete his band, bristles at being lumped in with the movement with which he is most often identified, and who values genuine zeal over musical acuity?

Not so easy to tell them apart now, eh?

Both Fair and Smith have a sense of unshakeable mission to their work and each have the boldness to risk making something new and unique.  They turn out to be more similar than originally imagined.  They each dare dangerously close to writing hit melodies and then veer away from the sudden death of radio success at the last moment with yelps, shouts, or bizarre instrumentation.  They were both originally suspected of trafficking in irony but each have nurtured a cult following interested in (what is now clearly) an earnestly strange approach to music.  Both musicians are known as collaborators and springboards for other artists to launch from, with Fair famously working with everyone from Daniel Johnston to Teenage Fanclub, and Danielson being some sort of ever mutating collective the likes of which helped to ignite the career of Sufjan Stevens. 

So their collaboration, facilitated by the Joyful Noise’s “Artist In Residence” program, is not as strange a pairing as it would first seem.  What is strange are the roles that each musician plays in the context of the record.jad-fair-ws-710  According to the Sounds Familyre website the songs were mostly composed by Smith who interpreted (and sometimes repurposed) Fair’s mouth articulated and beat-boxed recordings of his ideas for how the songs should go.  With Smith tasked with keeping the train on the rails, the once upon a time enfant terrible of punk rock, Jad Fair, is positioned in the center ring.  The effect is that of Fair being the Master of Ceremonies to Daniel Smith’s wild and untethered talent.  It is sort of the same concept as Captain Beefheart being presented to bellbottom-wearing kids by Frank Zappa (who was himself a bananas artist who the public often didn’t know what to make of, though he at least had a novelty hit or two).  But this arrangement works.  They fit well into these roles.  They manage to put together a record that is full of ideas and interesting quirks, but one that is not the sum of its parts.  The project defies that kind of math.  It is something else altogether.

The record never threatens to veer into disaster the way any of Half Japanese’s thrilling records from the 80s do, so gone is that charge of terrified energy, the sense of potential doom that makes you understand a little bit of what the fucked up characters from Crash were after.  It is also missing Smith’s typically overt Christian hosannas.  His faith is still on display here, mostly in the form of subtle allusions to apples and solid gold (possibly sacred) hearts, and not so subtle allusions to the inevitable triumph of good over evil like, “the side of good will win overall.”  I do miss the out-of-left-field, earnest Christianity Smith typically brings with him that is like a friend you invite over who doesn’t mention he’ll be bringing his mastiff, Hulk, who is actually pretty dope once you get to know him, (particularly since you know he’ll be leaving as soon as your friend does).  Similarly, I sort of miss the kind of unglued songwriting that is apparent in songs like “Did You Step on my Trumpet” and “Grow Up.”

But the record is something different than all that.  It is pivoting from childlike stubbornness into an organized structure the likes of which abound in the adult world, the kind that is necessary when two emissaries from very different lands meet up on neutral territory and start to communicate.  This formalized playfulness is embodied in the song “Here We Stand,” where the drum beat is simple and pure and the lyrics bravely state how simple moral quandaries sometimes are.  “Here we stand on the side of good / Here we stand on the side of good.”

It encapsulates the childlike zeal of the record, the simplicity that embodies what is great about good music.  “The future is ours,” one of these peculiars shouts.  And indeed it may be.

The title track is a little too smooth with its whispered verses and tremolo guitar, but it’s nice to hear the overstuffed stanzas of the chorus and the strange lyrics that toy with the ancient cliché that is the song’s central metaphor.

Solid gold heart
A solid gold heart
Will never, ever rust
Is filled with trust
Each and every dust
Particle in the world
Will agree with me
About this one thing

Though there is an effort to be more structured, the record is not without moments of abandon. “Rockin on the Good Side” and “Here we Stand” are wild and free in ways that are no longer fashionable.  We all thought, when we were sitting around as children recording songs like “Power Rock” into tape recorders, that if music became easy enough to record, everyone would do it, and we as a society would experience the freedom to create whatever we wanted.  It turns out that the easier it gets to record and make music, the less daring musicians get:

Just google “How to write a song” and you’ll get results like this:

and this:

It’s the kind of mindless fascism that led to the ascendance of Mussolini and the career of Charlie Hunnam.

No YouTube tutorials for these guys though.  These eccentrics are still making up all the rules as they go along and making the kind of shit you could never make if you had 1,000 monkeys banging on the keys of 1,000 Casio SA-76s, for 1,000 years.

“Ready Steady” is the kind of revelatory song that people who try to teach other people the formula for writing a hit song could never understand.  It starts with Smith making the sound a rocket makes when it takes off.  It has an insistent beat and an earworm hook that sounds like what the theme song to a long running and non-existent cartoon about lightning bugs who work at a mustard factory would sound like.  It transforms an amateur scat into some kind of formal weirdness that one can only imagine comes about after imbibing at least a sip of marijuana.

The song concludes with the lyric: “We deserve chocolate cake / And we deserve apple pie / Enjoy your life.” The refusal to rhyme the couplet that Fair has been teasing the whole song is a holdover from the kind of I-do-what-I-want aesthetic both artists have trafficked in for decades.  It’s what makes this the best song on the record.  It reaffirms my faith in the future of rock and roll music.

When I wrote “Power Rock,” I was a child pretending (and failing) to sound like an adult.  I was trying to capture something about what I perceived the adult world to be like, but I did not have the experiences required to do so.  I can see now that I should have been making things that reflected the environment in which I was living, but even if I were trying to explain the child like world around me, I never would have come up with lyrics about chocolate cake, a goose, and unabashed love, with the unironic optimism that are included on this record.  But I guess that is what happens when you reach adulthood.  You long for childhood and if you do it right, you give yourself permission to love the things you took for granted as a child, the things you were afraid to admit that you loved so deeply.  We need artists like these because children don’t have the vocabulary to express their oh-so-vital and valid needs and wants and most adults don’t allow themselves the innocence required to make art like this.

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