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Half Japanese
Vol. 2 1987-1989: Music To Strip By/Charmed Life/The Band That Would Be King (Reissues) Nick Hutchings , February 27th, 2015 14:41

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. Volume 1 featured scratchy and apposite half songs like radioactive isotopes bristling with half-lifes. Jad and brother David have never formally learnt how to play chords and their contrary nature reputedly saw gigs with Jad playing his electric guitar with an air gap between jack and amp, despite the consternation of the sound man.

At the other end of the spectrum, last year's Overjoyed and its fully formed studio songs with structure, choruses and orthodox durations by comparison is like Half Japanese's equivalent of Tusk. As you might imagine, Volume 2 which features the albums Music To Strip By, Charmed Life and The Band That Would Be King falls somewhere in between. The songwriting in this period is still prolific, the lyrics sometimes puerile, sometimes prurient, but the sensibility has become more pop than their early scratching.

To make the experience of diving into 109 songs, some of which have the same titles but vastly different arrangements, it seems pertinent to use Jad's advice and divide them into love and monsters.

Music To Strip By is all love, albeit furious, fumbled and furtive. If the cover is like a pubescent scrawl on a school notebook, then the blues music contained within is also a rule breaking scribble. 'Thick & Thin' is John Lee Hooker playing Etta James 'I Just Wanna Make Love To You', while 'Diary' might as well be Elvis' 'Trouble'. These songs are elevated and enervated by Jad's irascible but inspired lyrics. Lines like "write it in my diary what you did to me and leave it on the table for all to see", or "Her sister gave me heaven and her father gave me hell" from 'Point/Counterpoint' may seem simplistic or naïve but they paint a picture that you can complete in your own imagination. You provide the context, you make your own conclusions or provide your own punch lines. While you're doing it the band have hurled you headlong into the next song, ranging from the sleaze of 'Sex At Your Parents House' to the banal description of watching Terminator to the tune of Cash's 'Folsom Prison Blues'.

Just when you think you have their measure, there's always a ruck of the carpet to trip you up with. Half Japanese go all Los Lobos with an oddball cover of 'La Bamba', then there's 'Silver & Katherine' where the crooked becomes smooth with a saxophone line that Lionel Richie could have half-inched for 'Give It To Me'. The mildly embarrassing juvenilia of the lyric "Sit on my lap and let me guess your weight" from 'Scratch' conjures Beavis & Butthead sniggering behind their scabby hands and I'm pretty certain Ween have heard this one before. Music To Strip By a rag bag of musical influences tied to tall tales with a verisimilitude to Jad's own beguiling, charmed life.

The album Charmed Life is less about love, more monster. Or perhaps a more monstrous love?  Or learning to love the monster inside? It was recorded before but released after Music To Strip By and is less about twelve bar blues, more about raucous four-four riffs. Title song and stand out 'Charmed Life' is redolent of Eddie Cochrane's 'Somethin' Else'. 'Day & Night' sounds like a re-tooling of Vince Taylor's 'Brand New Cadillac' and there's a whiff of 'Should I Stay Or Should I Go' in 'I'll Change My Style'. Another song with the title 'Terminator' has a driving garage stomp at its breast-beating core. There is love in the lyrics but it's defiant, very much take it or leave it "I've got one million kisses for one million girls". Less whiny and needy than Music To Strip By, the lyrics are spouted from a lip with more curl and less pucker. It's the equivalent to preening in front of the mirror, the night stretching ahead full of promise and liquor, before it descends into disappointment and merely imagined depravity.

As if to compound the punk expectation and the tighter guitar and sax onslaught of the album, the band let loose on 'Real Cool Time'. This is as indulgent as the Half Japanese get, playing a near nine minute love letter to The Stooges. Charmed Life is as accessible as Half Japanese get, possibly as of the three albums collected here it was the one that carried the twin axis of both Jad and David Fair.

The Band That Would Be King, is definitely less love more belligerent monster. The cover features Jad's face superimposed on a boxer socking it to Elvis and he belts out tunes that range from lithesome 'Lucky Star' with its 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' style refrain to the scatter punk scat of 'Little Records'. Jad clearly believes the band would be king if there were any justice and his singing has more heft, register and tone.

The spread of songs is less punchy than Charmed Life but their reach is greater. To continue the imagery of the David Fair penned cover art, there are testing jabs like 'Deadly Alien Spawn' or 'Postcard From Far Away' followed by a haymaker like 'Put Some Sugar On It' which hits a really sweet spot. The tight musicianship of 'What More Can I Do' belies the oft-levelled lo-fi tag, while 'Another World' embodies a trip into a dark psyche hitherto untapped. 'Every Word Is True' is an embittered eddy current of defiance countered by the more earnest 'I Live For Love'.

With Volume 2 the songs keep on coming, relentlessly and unremitting, and often end before they've really began, with a profligacy only really since matched by Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices. Half Japanese have plainly never been a fan of self-editing. By showing so much of themselves in all their imperfect glory they clearly don't give two hoots what anyone else thinks. Love and monsters is all well and good, but self-indulgence and punk spirit is the true and unlikely dichotomy at the ever breaking heart of Half Japanese.