Written by: Dave Cantrell
Nearly all that’s lastingly worthwhile is a long game. Anything less than that – think crypto, TikTok virality, every fad diet ever – is a hustle, flashes in shallow scratched-up teflon pans that burn on the surface for a couple of impressive seconds before burning out altogether. They are, in short, called ‘crazes’ for a reason. This being the culture it is, these schemes are often brazenly successful prior to their consignment to the proverbial scrap heap, leaving freshly-minted millionaires that are maybe still millionaires but ones whose historical reputation couldn’t buy a cup of tepid decaf. Almost by design instant gratification has become the coin of our capitalistic realm while the concept of an enduring legacy has become success’s quaint, dumpy little sibling (dumpling?), regarded, if at all, with a disdain disguised as pity. As likely will come as no surprise to frequent readers of SEM, that’s just not our way. We live for the long game and those that pursue it, those that have pretty much since day one chosen – wisely we feel – to develop in a manner that reflects the tenor of their character, their creative drive, not as a ‘strategy’ but rather the result, simply, of having no choice. For some artists this means their fans must wait on patience-testing tenterhooks for the release of a new album which, due its troubled scarcity, becomes something of an event (rf. Scott Walker RIP), while for others it can lead to a type of hyperactive ennui where nothing’s quite right or good enough as they stretch their aesthetic to the breaking point and the vaults fill up and spill over with a thousand albums worth of material never destined for their listeners’ ears (rf. Prince RIP). Then there’s Jad Fair and his somewhat recently-linked co-conspirator Samuel Locke Ward.
Like a couple of Mark E. Smiths minus the caustic residue – and in fact endowed to the brim with the exact opposite – but with all that palpable restlessness in place (though, to be, umm, fair, with Jad and Samuel both, it’s kind of that times a million; Locke has released 60+ albums since the mid-90s and Jad, already a bit off the charts in that regard, has been rocking on a particularly significant roll of late as spelled out a couple paragraphs hence), the two troubadours, by that metric, truly seem designed for this insatiable age. There, however, the zeitgeist adjacency ends. Angst-free, full of love and several thousand miles this side of cynical, Fair and Ward are (and may all concerned pardon the glibness) what might be expected were the DNA of Mister Rogers crossed with that of Yo La Tengo. The refreshing lack of guile in that formulation is matched by the fact the Fair and Ward have matched up at all, a fact that defines the word ‘serendipitous’ and gives one faith in the power of the inevitable or the mechanics of destiny or whatever even if it wasn’t exactly blind coincidence.
Back in the early aughts, Ward bought a hefty helping of CDs at a yard sale in his native Iowa that included a smattering of early Half Japanese titles, a none-too-common occurrence no matter one’s locale but especially, we’d reckon, in the Hawkeye State (we’re gonna limb it and presume a proximity to ISU here). A chance discovery on par with a revelation, the influence of Fair’s approach – “the collision between composed music and improvisation and the relationship between the two” as Ward quite rightly describes it – rather radically shifted the trajectory of his own approach to the craft such that, by the time he found himself opening for Fair at, what else, an art show in Lincoln NE a few years later, the work of fate was already pretty much an a priori done deal, collaboration mooted by both the stars and common bloody sense as the two became fast friends at, shall we say, record speed. And, as it turned out, that record was, in its way, the record of records.
Nothing, we have to imagine, better cements a fresh working relationship than helping your new friend accomplish the plainly insane goal of recording and releasing 150 albums in a calendar year, a feat Fair indeed realized in 2021 as Discogs and Bandcamp can both attest and, we’re guessing, the Guinness people are having a dickens of a time wrapping their muttering heads around. Now, while only a fool would doubt Jad’s success in this venture barring injury sickness or death (and even then…), to have what amounts to a spiritual aesthetic co-captain in the mix had to have been a boost. Mission completed, the collaborative process, by nature’s strict if generous command, must continue and here, in Happy Hearts (Kill Rock Stars, February 10th) we have the first of the undoubted many, an assertion easily made seeing as the two have maintained the delirious pace of their songwriting discipline post-marathon.
Like a statement to whatever jury of doubters that might be out there, sitting on their hands, their faces puffed with skepticism, initial track “I Have A Feeling,” laid in against a multi-tracked backdrop of hymn-like vocables, the gospel according to Jad of love, love, love against anything else is, it would seem, meant to disarm with its none-more-earnest charm the sentinels of doom and their army of frowns and instead usher joy without fanfare into the proceedings. And proceed these two do through sixteen more short chapters – only twice do we sway past the 3-minute mark – of verse/chorus/bliss, all in all amounting to a varied merry-go-round of styles and tempos that spin around its central premise: life is sweet if we let ourselves see it, allow ourselves to unshackle for a moment from the host of worries and deprivation that capture our souls from day to day and see the love waiting all loyal and patient right inside our hearts. In short, quite Jad (and Ward)-like indeed and as such – and just as important – a bristlingly good album of top-notch outsider pop.
Following “…Feeling” comes “Fate Is On Our Side,” a basher surging with triumph, comes the title track, a swinging piano-based slice of yesteryear radio goodness with a sweet rage of guitar and the hits, as they say, just keep on comin’. The dreamy “Over My Head” that’s not so much puppy love as peppy love; “Us,” proving that even sludge can be drafted into the cause; the gently hyperactive “That’s Where You Are,” tight, intricate, to this set of ears Happy Hearts‘ most bounteous track which is succeeded by a sudden burst of grungeful glee called “Bluebird” which itself leads to “I Wrote A Poem” which is damn near epic in its brief scope.
They’re everywhere, these things.
“Dream Come True,” a pop-classic track that snaps the pollyanna into a just-do-it reality, “You Sweetheart, You,” complex and a bit weird that had me imagining Captain Beefheart in the form of an idealistic love bomb, down to the final kiss of blissful idiosyncrasy “Celebration,” a kind of valedictory singalong spellalong that leaves us with the wonderful capper of a couplet “This is a time for jubilation / so go ahead, jubilate” and how perfect is that?
To be clear, Happy Hearts, like its authors, is unabashed to a point of near discomfort but, come down to it, that’s actually the point. Speaking to the powers about the power of love through a homemade papier-mâché megaphone is bound to make us out here in the Great Assembly of Cynics hem and haw and look at our feet, shuffling with unease. Maudlin though our affectations are, we are nonetheless quite fond of soaking in the too-easily accessed pools of disdain and cold hard realism. Yes, the world can be an ugly place, ignorance parading as leadership, hate with its addictively dark sweet taste available in thriving quantities on the internet etc etc blah blah blah but love, as we’ve so long known, is the antidote to every poison fouling our lives, yet somehow over the centuries it’s become an uncommonly rare act of the simplest bravery to say so. Rarer still to keep doing so, over and over regardless of how strong the blowback of wind at your face. Jad Fair and his now-confrere Samuel Locke Ward may not appear the most likely messengers but then again they do have, in double strength, both the spine and, more crucially perhaps, a wherewithal made of hooks and melody to carry the message irrepressibly forward. Now it’s just up to the rest us to hear it.[make your hearts happy here or here]