[4 September 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Band reunions tend to carry history with them. Some, like Archers of Loaf and Pavement, embrace it and drive around knocking out that history on stage night after night. Others like the Pixies feel like they’re constantly trying to outrun it. Some bands, like Mission of Burma, disappear for so long, the return is more step forward than look back. No matter the path, though, there’s something over a reunited band’s shoulder, whether it chooses to look back at it or not.
The new Half Japanese record, Overjoyed, isn’t and doesn’t really feel like a reunion album, but it is the band’s first record in over a decade. As such, it’s bound to run into questions of whether or not it is a return to form or a breaking of new ground or whatever shifting expectation we have of bands that come back with new material. It may not surprise that Jad Fair’s band sounds blissfully unaware of expectations. The group that started with Fair and his brother David clanging out oddball pop in their bedroom still comes off as irreverent and overcharged, wild-eyed and innocent as ever.
Overjoyed is a great set that feels very much of the moment, like a set of songs the band just plainly wanted to make. It wasn’t time to make another Half Japanese record, it was time to make this record. Fair himself, who is more giving impassioned speeches than he is singing, speaks often of “the moment” on the record. Wandering epic “The Time Is Now” finds Fair constantly demanding that someone “don’t let life pass you by”. Both opener “In Its Pull” and closer “Tiger Eyes” speak of luck as a fleeting thing to be taken advantage of right the hell now. Even love, of which there is much here, sounds like a volatile, exciting element Fair discovered, one he worries has a short half-life.
Fair does sound unabashed in love on Overjoyed. “I’m so glad we’re us,” he exclaims in “The Time Is Now”, and he repeats this in variations across the record. His declarations of love are plainspoken and sweet. On “Shining Star”, he sings “You have a very winning way” with all the starry-eyed energy of a person newly in love. On “Our Love”, he simply says, “You and me, you and I / yeah, that’s love.” He lists characteristics he loves, he uses the noun “we” with relish.
But what’s fascinating about Overjoyed is that often declarations of love double as or run alongside motivational mantras. “Don’t let our time pass us by,” he sings, coming back to that idea of seizing the moment. On “Shining Star”, his love is “a brand new you” that’s “here to stay”. “Do It Nation” is a fuzzy howl-and-hiss rattler where Fair repeats “do it” over and over again with a kind of subterranean snarl. But everywhere else the mantras are bright assertions, and so capturing the moment goes hand in hand with being in love.
So on Overjoyed true love becomes the ultimate motivator. Appropriately, the music is edgy with the sort of newfound energy that comes with finding love and constantly moving forward with propulsion. With all the influence 1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beast had, it’s easy to forget that Half Japanese evolved on later, excellent records like Hot and Fire in the Sky into a much more immediate and accessible art-rock band. The eccentricity is still there on Overjoyed, but it has morphed into something deeper and more considered than the fits and bursts of those records. The playing has also tightened overtime without losing its ability to surprise. The way the moody wobble of “The Time Is Now” shifts to the sunburst power-pop of “Our Love” may spin you on your heels. “Each Other’s Arms” has a dusty shuffle that both sets up and counterpoints the surf rock of “Overjoyed and Thankful”.
If the album hops along different tangents of rock, it also provides simple joys at every turn. The insistent rumble of the bass that starts the record on “In Its Pull”. The funky percussion of “Brave Enough”. The jangly spaces of “We Are Sure”. In each of these moments, you feel the band discovering new expressions of their sound. This constant jumping around also, on yet another level, sells the equal parts restlessness and focus love seems to lend to the life depicted on this record. For all the challenging experimentation of the Half Japanese catalog, Overjoyed‘s unapologetic, whole-hearted declarations of love, all seeming devoid of cynicism, make for some of the band’s most confrontational material yet. Half Japanese hasn’t returned on Overjoyed. They just found something they wanted to write songs about.