Half Japanese – Volume 2: 1987-1989

Half Japanese - Volume 2: 1987-1989

Half Japanese – Volume 2: 1987-1989

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.

The Music To Strip By-era segment is somewhat of a rambunctious revelation on its own.  Sustaining the ultra-compact track times and rabid stylistic diversity from the earlier albums – attitudinally akin to The Minutemen’s legendary Double Nickels On The Dime double-album – Fair leads the way with his inimitable nerdish nasal tones and sinewy songs that are given flexible flesh and bone by his likeminded musical accomplices.  With self-penned vignettes soaked in sexual neuroses (“Diary” and “Sex At Your Parents’ House”), the Sisyphus-like futility of a regular working life (“Blue Monday”) and religious dysfunction (“Ouija Board Summons Satan”), Fair’s compositions straddle a broad yet bespoke lyrical spectrum, laced with urbane wit and bookish venom.  Sonically, the infectious Music To Strip By material glows via a genre-hopping raft of idioms; which includes dismembered-blues (“Thick And Thin”), galloping gypsy-rockabilly (“Big Mistake”), herky-jerky SST-hardcore (“U.S. Teens Are Spoiled Bums”), low-slung Crazy Horse prowling (“Point/Counterpoint”), proto-Galaxie 500 dream-pop (“Silver And Katherine”) and warped space-jazz (“Hey”).

Half Japanese - Volume 2 1987-1989 (unpacked)

Half Japanese – Volume 2 1987-1989 (unpacked)

With the Charmed Life-led portion of this compendium, the predominantly guitars-bass-drums set-up of Music To Strip By is noticeably enhanced by the sax skronk embellishments of passing-through-member Don Dreyfuss, which give many of the recordings added guttural grooves.  With Fair lyrically tackling everything from geopolitics (“Vietnam”) to celebrity obsession (“Madonna Nude”), his penmanship retains an eccentric world view that joins the dots between Jonathan Richman, Stephen Malkmus and David Byrne.  Musically, the net is cast even wider to incorporate mutated Funhouse-phase Stooges shapes (“Love At First Sight”), careening Roxy Music-meets-Talking Heads knottiness (“Charmed Life”), pre-Pavement slacker-rock (“1,000,000,000,000 Kisses”), discordant raga-rock (“King Kong Bundy”) and a mangled covert tribute to “Rock Lobster” by The B-52’s (“Terminator”).

After the relative tightness and finesse of the Music To Strip By and Charmed Life wares, The Band That Would Be King cuts are less focused and consistent, with more things becoming unhinged in headier and heavier stylistic settings, splattered with avant-punk jaggedness.  Nevertheless, there are still enough memorable nuggets to be found in-between the messier moments; such as the Hawaiian-surf-washed “Daytona Beach”, the slinky jazz skittering of “Something In The Wind,” the skewed short-storytelling of “My Most Embarrassing Moment,” the lilting folk-rock of “I Live For Love,” the elegiac forlorn “Ashes On The Ground” (subsequently covered by disciples and future collaborators Yo La Tengo) and the twangy country of “Big Wheels.”

Although Volume 2: 1987-1989 may have its fair share of misfires, its overall hit-rate is remarkably high for an exhaustive anthology drawn from the ‘80s DIY netherworld.  Whilst it’s hard to say if it fully represents the best of the Half Japanese oeuvre, it’s certainly an unquestionable strong entry-point into the band’s uncompromising catalogue of charming invention.

Fire Records