You know when you’re at a party, enjoying a group conversation and a member of your gaggle makes a private joke, the meaning behind you’re not privy to? It creates this terribly awkward and uncomfortable feeling as you’re left wondering what is so funny. From context and reaction, you can infer that something enjoyable, or at the very least interesting has occurred, but you’re completely at a loss as to what that is or what it even could be. Half Japanese is the musical equivalent of that sensation. Within their repertoire, you can hear the stylistic hints from the likes of Modest Mouse, Beat Happening and Built to Spill but they’re assembled in a manner that’s not unenjoyable, but it’s not particularly pleasant either. They are one of the earliest art punk bands still operating, having been running in one form or another since 1977 so there must be some magic here that isn’t quite clicking. At the end of Hear The Lions Roar, their seventeenth LP, you’re mostly left scratching your head asking not “was that any good?” but rather “what the hell was that?”
The album flutters between so many genres that’s nearly impossible to pin down. The new wave/pop power bounce on ‘Here We Are’ sits alongside the Shellac noise of ‘It Never Stops’, The Smiths jangle of ‘Hear The Lions Roar’and Bowie glam of ‘Wherever We Are Led’, which owes a pretty substantial amount to ‘Rebel Rebel’. Musically, it’s so scattershot and varied that it should a schizophrenic mess, but it really isn’t. There’s so much fun, diversity, and energy that you find yourself constantly coming back to appreciate the left field turns. It helps too that the music is so well constructed. You can flip-flop this well without fully understanding what makes each of your chosen styles work and they truly do. The quality of these compositions begs for you to keep this album close to your chest for as long possible, but the vocals are hard to forgive, let along to ignore.
Jad Fair has a distinctive voice, like Isaac Brock covering Daniel Johnston, and his Sprechgesang vocals can, at times, fit his pieces very well as on the Slint-like discordance of the ‘The Preventers’. His semi-tuneless wails are deeply embedded in the DNA of his band and to try to divorce them is to try and irreparably change who Half Japanese are. To accept this voice, for better or worse, is part of the pill you have to swallow for this album because the vocal work is quite trying. ‘Attack of the Giant Leeches’, for example, Fair howls, in his best Pee Wee Herman impression, about these leeches which are as a big as your noses, provided you have a forty foot nose. It’s not even ironically charming; it’s cringe inducing. His lyrics fall into a similar trap. They’re predominantly creature-feature vignettes about hippy zombies, giant leeches, and werewolves and they can be fun in a cheesy way. But even they succumb to these flights of fancy that are embarrassing as on the otherwise excellent ‘Super Power’. Fair’s parts here are juvenile in a way that doesn’t mesh well with the confidence of the music that accompanies them. While that may be what Half Japanese are aiming for, it is ultimately to the detriment of the whole experience, turning an excellent guitar record and turn it into merely a good one. Will Murphy