Playing Through

Are the Fairways destined to be overlooked in their own country?

Still, the album has no shortage of terrific tracks. Recorded over five months at the Alameda studio of ex-Ciao Bella member Jaime McCormick, the record is mellower than the live shows, a fact that only highlights how smartly written the songs are. With multipart harmonies, chiming guitar riffs, and "ba ba" vocals, "Phthalo Blue" appears to be all sunshine and roses until you listen to the miserable lyrics. The bouncy number "Secretive Girl" throws poison darts at a character "following every fashion trend ... from the beginning to the end," while "Get It Right" posits a music journalist clinging to youth amongst festive organ and handclaps.

"Many of the songs aren't very flattering," Kenji says. "They're about certain people; I have a scenario and I put the person in it."

"They're based on a person but they're not really them," Leavitt hastily adds. "It's imaginary things they may be thinking about." He pauses and smiles. "Does that cover our asses enough?"

Ultimately, the same intelligence and low-key charm that may doom U.S. record sales is helping the Fairways overseas.

In Sweden, a program called P3 Pop, hosted by music journalist Ika Johannesson in a style similar to revered British DJ John Peel, has been playing Is Everything All Right? like it was the second coming of Meet the Beatles.

"Everyone in the Stockholm indie scene is talking about the Fairways. They are very much loved in Sweden," says Toby Thorsen, employee at Swedish label and distributor Benno Records.

In England, the Fairways are often mentioned on the Shalala List, an Internet sounding board of indie pop aficionados from around the world. (San Francisco has its own such list at www.egroups.com/group/sf_indie.)

Bedroom mail-orders -- small distribution companies usually run by one or two people -- are selling loads of the band's records to countries like Germany, France, and Sweden, as well as the U.S. With scenes springing up all over, the Fairways' label Paris Caramel has been able to license the record to several foreign countries.

"All the records over [in Japan and the Philippines] come with bonus tracks," Paris Caramel co-owner Mark Sgarzi says. "And the Japanese kids are so fanatical they buy both copies."

A recent Japanese TV news show featured one of the band's songs in the background of a restaurant review. In a land where Pokémon and Hello Kitty are king and queen, can it be long before the Fairways have a set of cuddly dolls?

For now, Japanese fans will have to be sated with a planned tour in January. According to Cohen, who went over recently as keyboardist for the Aislers Set, the Japanese treat idiosyncratic pop bands far better than Americans do.

"All the chain stores carry indie releases," she says. "Tower has listening stations for the Aislers Set!"

Here in the U.S., though, the Fairways will have to be content living by that age-old college radio credo: "Give the people what they need, not what they want."

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