For someone honestly thinking about works of real, visceral art, "Where did X come from?" is the most pressing question that can be asked. For whoever actually made X, it's damn near impossible to answer. So artists vacillate. They hem and haw over minutiae. They digress. They deny any intentionality in their work. They talk mechanics rather than technique -- about the recording process and how strange it was working with live drums for, like, the first time ever.
The Ian Fays, who make really, honestly, incredibly visceral art -- art that's sometimes hard to take, art that can catch in your throat -- the Ian Fays do all these things. It's not disingenuous or evasive or snotty, but neither does it make me believe for a second that the way their depressive, shamefaced lyrics interplay with the upbeat lines of their melodies is some happy coincidence.
After listening to their album The Damon Lessons this week on repeat in my car -- the thin, spare twee-drone synths and hushed vocals somehow forming an unbroken partition -- the veneer of girliness and glee they attribute to themselves as they drink, complain and mourn feels too young to be correct. "To us, cocktails are this fun girly thing," says Sara Fay, the nom de rock of the Ian Fays' bassist and accordionist. She acknowledges, though, that their cutesy dress and the way they stand doll-like onstage, done up like mods, swilling drinks, can come off like a perverse schoolyard fantasy. The look doesn't fit exactly, but neither does it feel like an act, much less an act of exhibitionism. They're onstage and they're happy, but they're singing sad songs. They're singing songs about drinking and about sucking up your sorrow and feeling stupid for being used.
They sing a song about wanting to commit random, spontaneous acts of arson.
Even there, though, they betray no hint of irony, no winks, no sass, no clenched fists. There are none of the elements that would make this a Girl Power slam dance. They're just singing in lilting tones over sluggishly bouncy Casio bleeps, xylophones and guitar about broken promises and other sad things. There are elements in their work that could be called childish or theatrical or, God forbid, emo. The onstage antics and dress, for example. The acoustic strum and glockenspiel of the cloyingly-named but frightfully earnest "Boyfriend" ends with a music box, plinking away deliberately for a full minute. Hitting the opposite tone, "Peppermint Snaps" ends with an honest-to-God sob. For the life of me, I can't figure out why it's so affecting, so I guess it has to be the laid-bare honesty. Why the Ian Fays get these unironic emotions and dramatic flourishes right (where the endless goose-stepping procession of bands like Panic! at the Disco stray into tawdry theatricality on one end and every Gray's Anatomy-approved band fails by understatement) isn't clear, so I ask them
"That's what us girls are known for," says guitarist Lizz Fay, and Lena (mallet-based percussionist; wields a mean triangle) finishes the thought, "Being happy on the outside." It's meant as a jokey non-answer, but it resonates. Given the desire to do what is expected (a Catholic conundrum, but a problem had by good kids of all stripes) and being brought up in such a way that keeping up appearances is, as Sara puts it "the only way we feel comfortable," makes self expression a terribly difficult thing. But expression pushes its way through, like a sad, vengeful, (drunken), & eacute;lan vital, breaking the patina of politeness.
It's beautiful and fragile, not because they're girls or because that's their pose, but because they're people trying to express themselves. And self-expression -- along with being the kind of disquieting and hard-to-quantify thing that causes artists to create opaque terms like "Catholic guilt" to mollify music writers -- is beautiful, fragile and most definitely mystical.
The fact that the Ian Fays don't seem to realize the tension inherent in their own work -- the impossibility of having it both ways -- except when onstage, playing to their family, as they were last week at Caf & eacute; Doma, says something essential about how schizophrenic and untenable contemporary American normalcy is.
Sometimes the people who have the least to say about their own work offer the best insights about our world.
They're at work on a new album now -- recording, says Lizz, "like seriously in a boat-slash-car-detailing place that has a little studio" somewhere on the side of Highway 41 near Post Falls. They don't say much about it, except that their influences have shifted a bit from The Damon Lessons' Saddle Creek dalliances: "We like happier tunes now." Since they blame the influence of Connor Oberst for what they consider the dour and somewhat childish frivolity of their first album, I wonder if the new one is going to be more straightforwardly light. Lizz stops short of that. "Well, I haven't made any happier lyrics yet," she says. "But I like listening to them." So even though blaming a Bright Eyes fetish is just as unhelpful to a rock critic as blaming Catholic guilt, it's not inappropriate given the circumstances. In some ways, it's all you need to know.
The Ian Fays at the Spread with Hundredfold and the Mona Reels on Thursday, Sept. 28, at 9 pm. They play the Spread again on Sunday, Oct. 8, at 9 pm, opening for Dominic Castillo and the Rock Savants. Tickets: $TBA. Call 456-4515.