That the new Half Japanese album is worth listening to is a given. The band's been making indie of the highest order before we even had a term for this sort of thing. What's remarkable this time out is how direct and accessible this band's tracks have become. Not only is Hear The Lions Roar, out Friday on Fire Records, one of the best Half Japanese releases in quite some time, it's also surely going to be seen in the future as one of the best albums of 2017. And in this grim, grim year, we need all the hope we can get.
The line-up of Half Japanese this time out is John Sluggett (guitar, keyboards, timbales), Gilles-Vincent Rieder (drums, percussion, keyboards), Jason Willett (bass, keyboards), Mick Hobbs (guitar, glockenspiel) and Jad Fair (vocals). Together, the effect of these players is, perhaps, a bit more seamless than other line-ups in the recent past. Still, the power of the Half Japanese material is really thanks to Jad Fair's unaffected-and-heartfelt delivery as vocalist and front-man.
Of course, there's the usual kind of fascination with alt-culture (b-movie love in "Attack of the Giant Leeches"), and forceful optimism (the title track), and the sort of ramshackle fuzz-punk fans of this band have long come to expect ("Here We Are"). For all the moments here that feel familiar, there are loads that surprise. "The Preventers" explores a more languid texture for the tune-age, things unfurling at a deliberate pace like a rough, near-blues piece. Elsewhere, Jad Fair delivers one of his most beautiful compositions in the direct "Do It Now", an ode to love and one of the most life-affirming and simple things I've heard in quite some time.
Other places on Hear The Lions Roar see this similar sort of music-making from Fair and his crew. "It Never Stops" shines like a ray of sunshine, a tune full of the usual optimism that Fair brings to his recordings even if he's distracted by fears of the "fury of the wolfman" lyrically. On the spry "Super Power" Fair allows the band to skip through a near-ska rhythmic pattern as he croons over the top. The cut shows the risk-taking this line-up is willing to engage in in 2017, next to the Cure-like hook that underpins "On The Right Track", Fair penning his own riff on "The Lovecats" here.
One has to thank Jad Fair for making so much good music for so long. If he had simply decided to go the route of resting on his laurels, or touring some revival circuit for old indie guys, it would be understandable and acceptable. What he's done instead is assemble a pretty tight outfit and offered up some of his best recent material to start 2017. Hear The Lions Roar is full of bright, invigorating alt-rock that makes me smile. There's nothing too heavy here but in its simplicity Jad Fair has somehow tapped into something beautiful and real. Emotional in the way that old Robyn Hitchcock recordings could be, and unaffected in delivery throughout, the songs of Jad Fair and Half Japanese here are marvelous and simple. I cannot stress how much I enjoyed this record.
[Photo: Uncredited promo pic from label]