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Tim Fite - Fair Ain't Fair

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Artist: Tim Fite

Album: Fair Ain't Fair

Label: Anti-

Review date: May. 5, 2008

Had things turned out differently, Tim Fite would have made a pretty convincing cult leader. That’s a weird compliment to pay, but Fite is a weird guy. There is a charismatic mystery about him, equal parts mythology and absurdity: he is said to live in a graveyard, he is said to have been born without blood, he calls himself “the gentleman with itchy legs” for some reason… that kind of thing. He doesn’t take himself overly seriously, but he has this fascinating alternate morality that makes his songs feel latently spiritual, a mastery of illogic that makes tautologies and contradictions – “fair ain’t fair,” for starters – sound like important truths.

The first big contradiction is how you classify Fite musically. Over the Counter Culture, a protracted sermon about consumerism (still available for free), is essentially a precocious rap album, showcasing Fite’s penchants for oddball samples and tongue-twisting wordplay. But Fair Ain’t Fair, and its true predecessor Gone Ain’t Gone, are cut-and-paste folk oddities, far more thoughtful and economical despite a half-baked skit here or a lapse into coarseness there. Gone Ain’t Gone was exciting in part because it found Fite actively trying on idioms, dabbling in redneck lamentation and sneering barroom rock and vaudevillian funk without typecasting himself. Fair Ain’t Fair operates in a considerably narrowed musical scope; it’s much less ostentatiously sample-based, and much less frenetic in its variety. Most of the album sticks to a slow, somber acoustic base, only sometimes laying in archaic instrumentation and eerie glitchery. The recondite spirit remains, but the sense of restlessness has disappeared, and with it much of the impertinent energy that propelled Gone Ain’t Gone.

What we gain in its place, though, is more rewarding: a closer look at the mechanics of Fite’s itchy-legs sophistry, the nature of his controlled eccentricity. “Fair ain’t so fair, fuckers”, he yelps by way of greeting, over a tentative nursery waltz: “There’s folly in the pork fat / The devil needs a doormat / For his dirt.” In the 16 tracks that follow, less is immediately memorable – although the slacker ditty “Big Mistake” is as sweet as the blood-and-dirt spiritual “My Hands” is chilling – but more is woven into the construction of something multi-dimensional: a character, a narrative, a metaphysics. Happily, Fite proceeds lightly enough that the meditation never feels mandatory. You get to decide what to make of his lazy surrealism (“Thought I was a dress wearing that other dress”) and his disarming candor (“If I wanted touching, I’d touch myself / Clumsily, clumsily”). You can take “More Clothes” as a ballad about pop-culture venality, or as an oblique you-can’t-take-it-with-you, or you can just enjoy the fact that you are listening to a song that uses the line “Hey! There’s mustard on yo’ titty” like it’s no big deal.

And that’s probably why Fite is so magnetic. He wants nothing from you. Even at his most abstruse and moralizing, he’s more philosopher than prophet. If he were after your money or your time, he’d make his product flashier, his sour wail sweeter, his borrowed hooks brighter. He would record an album of anodyne jaunts like “Sing Along,” without the part at the end where he approvingly proposes that the song be used to sell cars or maxipads. He would tell you that love is heartache and war is hell, not that heartache is love and heaven is war. He’d sell you ideas that sound good but are built on fallacy, rather than the other way around. Instead, by making it all look so easy, he does perfect justice to complicated things, and for that alone he’s about as close to essential as it gets.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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