Album Review: Half Japanese – Overjoyed




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Let’s get this out right from the start: Jad Fair sings about jumping into a chocolate lake on two separate tracks on Overjoyed. Yes, that’s right. Two. Those paying even the least attention to Half Japanese since their mid-’70s origins shouldn’t be all that surprised. The brothers Fair, Jad and David (though David would leave the band in the ’80s), have always been strange in the very best way, first playing their proto-lo-fi on a tiny drum kit and an untuned guitar, singing about sci-fi movies and love. Their songs would go on to influence a large web of oddballs, from Neutral Milk Hotel to Nirvana.

But while intrinsic weirdness and an off-kilter worldview make the inclusion of those two chocolate lakes a little less surprising, it’s indicative of the goofy dad tone that comes ringing out of Fair’s performance. Part of that comes from the fact that this is one of the cleanest-sounding Half Japanese albums, a remarkably far cry from the scraped and charred cult masterpiece Half Gentlemen/Not Beasts, or the broken jazz of Loud. That makes sense, though, given that Overjoyed comes over 30 years later, 13 years after even their most recent album. Fair is 60 now, so toning down the hard-scrabble intensity and growing into a new sound would only be natural.

The production’s fi, courtesy of Deerhoof guitarist John Dieterich, isn’t all that lo anymore, putting Fair’s nasal platitudes and groovy guitar closer to Jonathan Richman’s troubadour heart than his Modern Lovers smirk. “When Jad Fair tells you that you are great/ And Jad Fair ain’t no liar, you are first rate/ Purr-fect said the cat, and I will agree to that,” he sings on “We Are Sure”. The first person narration, clean guitars, and animal references suggest that maybe Half Japanese had been an influence on They Might Be Giants and their kids material all along.

That positivity and support continues throughout the record, particularly when it comes to Fair’s beloved. “Pretty good/ Pretty great/ Two thumbs up/ First rate/ First rate/ All the way/ That’s our love/ Hoo-ray,” he clips on the twinkly “Our Love”. If it’s ironic, the smirk is too tight to tell. The same goes for the line that perhaps best sums up the album, from “Each Other’s Arms”: “You remind me of a book/ A book that I liked,” he sings over a carefree, Mediterranean sway.

But carefree doesn’t necessarily mean that Fair doesn’t care. The cheese to the lyrics is clearly a choice. It’s highly unlikely that he’s repeating words across the album on accident, forgetting he’d talked about certain things earlier. The clean production, whether it’s the bongo groove of “Brave Enough” or the spacy, scrubbed-clean version of no wave on “Meant To Be That Way”, too frequently redoubles the intentional toothlessness of the lines, like two straight men combining for a comedy bit. While deadpan can work pretty consistently, the tone surrounding that serious delivery has to be right. And sometimes you just need a zany punchline.

“I like the sun when it’s sunny outside/ And I like movies when it makes me funny inside/ And I like you always, always, and always/ And everything now is great now,” Fair sways on “Tiger Eyes”, a saccharine ballad that matches his childishly sweet delivery. On the opposite end of the spectrum, “Do It Nation” shows the album’s only real lo-fi fuzz, but in such a lightened version that it can’t keep up with the variously mumbled iterations of the song’s title.

Album highlight “The Time Is Now” could pass for Mac DeMarco as Fair embraces every ounce of lovestruck warmth. “Without a question, without a doubt/ It’s a good thing,” he smiles. And despite its goofy grin, squeaky clean production, and cheesy lyrics, Overjoyed is a good thing. If this is Fair aging into his dad rock phase, at least he’s a fun dad.

Essential Tracks: “Tiger Eyes”, “The Time Is Now”