Release Date: Jan 27, 2015
Record label: Fire Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Experimental Rock, American Underground, Post-Punk
To best understand the method to the musical madness of Half Japanese, leave the CDs in the box at first and instead start with the liner notes written by founding member David Fair. Under the title “How To Write Songs The Half Japanese Way,” the guitarist and founding member of this influential outfit goes over everything from the difference between influence and imitation to the best way to use rhyming words in your lyrics. But most importantly, he emphasizes the key factor that has kept this group alive for over four decades now: fearlessness.
The seemingly purposeful eccentricity of Jad Fair's melodic sense, lyrical outlook, and willful ignorance about the guitar (he's never made a secret of the fact he doesn't really know how to play and doesn't want to learn) would seem to be the key to the chaotic tone of much of Half Japanese's recorded work. Or at least that's how it seemed before David Fair, the co-founder of the band and Jad's brother, left the group in the mid-'80s, making Jad the uncontested leader of Half Japanese. With their first album after David's departure, 1987's Music to Strip By, Half Japanese slipped into a period of relative coherence, with Jad's world-view pretty much intact but the music taking on a new focus that was a distinct change from the cacophony of their first albums.
Remember when rock music was raw and intimidating, when it still had the ability to surprise, amuse and confront the mainstream perception of art? Despite common romantic, nostalgic representations of the genre, it’s never been as challenging as when it was being mercilessly mocked and assaulted in the ‘80s by the post-punk and no wave movements. Half Japanese may not have formally belonged to either of those scenes, but they nonetheless had the attitude of the former and the penchant for musical chaos of the latter, even while playing 12-bar blues and jangly guitar solos through much of their career. In retrospect, Half Japanese seem like indie rock’s missing link, the chain between Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, Slint, Sonic Youth, the Pixies and Pavement.
With such a thorough job having already been done in expansively restoring Half Japanese’s primordial works with the gargantuan Half Gentlemen / Not Beasts boxset in 2013 and last year’s Volume 1: 1981-1985 collection on Fire Records, approaching another 109 gathered tracks with the newly-available Volume 2: 1987-1989 selection is a somewhat daunting prospect. Yet thankfully, this latest retrospective round-up for Jad Fair’s kaleidoscopic art-rock enterprise is – despite its 3CD/3LP girth – the most accessible and assured archival set of the current Half Japanese reissue campaign so far. Built around restored versions of 1987’s Music To Strip By, 1988’s Charmed Life and 1989’s The Band That Would Be King albums, with appended sundry period outtakes and extras, Volume 2: 1987-1989 is at least two-thirds great, which is no false achievement for such a lengthy warts ‘n’ all assemblage.
At first glance, the sheer magnitude of the Half Japanese back catalogue appears over-whelming. If you apply Jad Fair's view that all his songs are either about love or monsters it suddenly brings the band's wonky world into a simple but sharp focus. A first batch of reissues Volume 1: 1981 – 1985 landed on Record Store Day last year, with a rambunctious new album Overjoyed tailgating dangerously behind.