Half Japanese has been galvanized by the world around them.
The sixteenth album from one of art punk’s most influential outfits, Hear the Lions Roar feels like a Jad Fair solo album masquerading as a Half Japanese project. His brother, David has contributed sporadically despite formally leaving the group, but this latest iteration of the 40-year-old band hinges on Jad more than ever. He delivers his usual brand of vivid, left-of-center lyricism, much of which takes on a more applicable meaning than expected in today’s dire political climate.
“Attack of the Giant Leeches” is pure B-movie absurdity, but it sort of plays as political allegory in 2017. The track isn’t all out raucous, thanks to a winsome horn line, but there’s controlled chaos both to Fair’s vocals and the cascade of guitar.
Always a master of cadence – which is important since he often opts to talk rhythmically instead of actually singing – Fair is thrilling on the opening verse of the bombastic “Here We Are” as well as the surreal “On the Right Track.”
The latter is a touching call for optimism despite dark times, punctuated by Fair’s delivery, which elevates lyrics that would fall into the keep-your-head-up cliché category in the hands of a less engaging vocalist. “Like grapes on a vine/ Everything will be super fine/ Don’t give up will be our line,” he sings, offering a portion of the reassurance we all need.
“Do It Now” is similarly galvanizing, with pulsating, dreamlike synths and thick, lingering guitar chords that seem to grow brighter and more determined as the track develops. “Keep your hands on the ready/ Keep it strong and please keep it steady/ Open your eyes and you will see/ It’s obvious/ And now is the time for us to prove/ Go ahead, it’s time to make our move,” Fair says in a message equal parts encouraging and urgent, reminding listeners that they have the capacity to create change but that the time to act is most certainly now.
There aren’t many missteps on the album, save for “Super Power,” which simply attempts to weave together too many disparate musical elements and winds up with a jagged final result. Glockenspiel-like pings surprisingly dominate the mix, and don’t play nicely with the horns and fairly naked bass line that make up much of the instrumental; it’s a track that surely would’ve benefited from more mids balancing out its distinct lows and highs. There’s nothing remarkable in Fair’s delivery or lyrics, and given the distracting instrumentation and the reverb on his vocals it’s a performance that is frankly tough to parse at all.
Ultimately though, while plenty of bands have come along in the past few decades that have built on the Half Japanese lyrical and musical model (Pavement, Parquet Courts, etc.), but Hear the Lions Roar cements not only that Jad Fair’s voice is unique and vital, but also that he’s still surrounded by musicians capable of properly setting the scene for him to do what he does best. The record isn’t exactly protest music outright, but it is clear that Half Japanese has been galvanized by the world around them and, if they don’t always have something exceptionally unique to say, they still have a terrific way to say it.