“We’ll stand up and we’ll stand pat. We’ll stand tall for this and that,” Jad Fair sings on “We Cannot Miss”, the second cut on Perfect, Half Japanese’s 14th studio album and second in as many years. With that, Fair hits upon his band’s long-running musical mission statement. He and his brother, David, started Half Japanese in 1975 with hardly a shred of musical know-how and even less of a care in the world. That first part might not sound like a recipe for success, but the second part has proven vital. Half Japanese have that iron backbone that so many treasured and romanticized underground acts possess, a willingness to be weird but true to their musical selves.
More than 40 years later, Half Japanese (without David) is still here with their wits and sonic curiosity still very much intact. But while weird is still very much in the band’s DNA, they don’t sound as surreally outside the box today as they did on early classics like Charmed Life and We Are They Who Ache With Amorous Love. There’s a certain inevitability to that fact, given those records came out close to 30 years ago. Still, listening to Perfect, the band’s second release for Joyful Noise following their 13-year hiatus, it sounds like the world has caught up with them a little bit. Thanks to the internet, it’s harder than ever to stand out as the musical loner in the corner. In the end, that’s the big question facing Perfect: Does the wide openness of the 21st century musical culture we live in make Half Japanese any less of a curious entity?
It really didn’t pose much of a problem for 2014’s Overjoyed, which didn’t suffer too much from the band’s extended layoff. That record was still very much the work of a group of heralded Maryland oddities, but it was among the cleanest sounding, most accessible works in the Half Japanese register. Perfect continues in that same vein, allowing for 13 tracks that are more digestible than the band’s earlier stuff could have ever hoped to be. That said, the band is still pivoting off the “music as art” philosophy. Even as Fair has sanded down his band’s edges a bit over the years, the band’s creative mentality is still decidedly rooted in the basement.
That Half Japanese’s wild musical vision is still largely untainted more than four decades later is Perfect‘s biggest reward. It might not exactly live up to its name, but it still sounds inspired, like the work of a group of guys who are genuinely stoked on what they do. The songs jump gleefully from genre to genre, or more appropriately, subgenre to subgenre. A chaotic electronic fit opens lead track “That is That” before the song takes the shape of a dense, irritable slab of guitar rock. Fair’s musical whims also find him tripping into percussive world music (“Perfect”), dusty country rock (“Man Without a Shadow”), and blissful space pop (“In Your Spell”). It’s sprawling and occasionally haphazard, but for a band that’s always made experimentation the focus, it’s easy to forgive the record for the moments when it trips up over its own whimsy. (“In wonderfully wonderous wonderful wonder, a sensationably, sensationable sensation that’s pretty cute, that’s called you,” Fair rambles on “That’s Called Love”.)
Fair has always had a tendency to get too cute in his lyrics, but there’s a contagious positivity to Perfect, even if it’s often oversimplistic. The song titles often say everything, as they do on “Listen To Your Heart”, “We’ll Go Far”, and others — but at least Fair sounds as though he still believes in what he preaches. Cut from the same cloth as Jonathan Richman, Daniel Johnston, and other songwriters who wear their hearts on their sleeves, Fair still refuses to let life beat him down. In a world that seems to be descending further and further into insanity by the minute, maybe we need more records like Perfect, foibles and all.
Essential Tracks: “Perfect”, “We Cannot Miss”