Half Japanese - Volume 2 : 1987-1989

by Andy Brown Rating:10 Release Date:2015-01-26

Fire Records have outdone themselves again in their quest to bring indie-punk weirdos Half Japanese to a whole new generation of listeners. Picking up where the previous re-issues left off, this release collects the three albums released between 1987 and 1989. This generous helping of lo-fi, surreal magic includes the albums Music to Strip By, Charmed Life and The Band That Would Be King.

Music to Strip By is an album populated by stripping parents, demonic ouija boards and spoilt, amorous teenagers. It's a sordid tale of money, sex and the “shocking breakdown of family moral values” (and that’s just the first song, ‘Stripping for Cash’).

These are songs that peak behind the white picket-fences of American suburbia; a salacious glimpse behind the net curtains. The songs are short, raw and often come with a tongue firmly lodged in cheek.  

The music rumbles and bounces along, like listening to the songs of Jonathan Richman as played by the king of all things a little wonky and weird, Daniel Johnston. Jad Fair never does things by the book and his disregard for rock's dismal trappings (set ways of playing the guitar, traditional chord structures) gives the album a spontaneous, unpredictable magic. This was the band's fifth studio album, yet they sound as reckless, uninhibited and plain joyous as a group recording their first demo.

Released a year later, Charmed Life refines the band's short, catchy punk oddities while losing none of their reckless, deliberately amateurish charm. The lyrical focus seems to have shifted, however. The songs feel more personal and there appears to be love in the air. If this all sounds a little too serious than don’t worry, the songs are still delivered with the same chaotic energy and unstudied passion. Half Japanese know the virtue of not overworking a composition; most songs are around the two-minute mark while the recordings capture all the unfiltered explosiveness of a band practice.

Highlights include the noisy punk stomp of ‘Day and Night’ (“Day and night with Angie/ Night and day with Angela”), the CBGB swagger of ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ and the sweet, lovelorn, Springsteen-on-a-budget beauty of ‘Miracles Happen Every Day’. This album finds the band developing their sound. Songs sound more substantial; the drums sound huge while the guitars are even more ragged and raw than before.

The band also indulge their experimental urges, with a fantastic and uncharacteristically long cover of The Stooges' ‘Real Cool Time’. Charmed Life exudes a genuine sense of positivity and enthusiasm, a pleasure in the small things and a lust for life that gives the songs their boundless energy. In short, Charmed Life is a fucking blast. 

The group continued their insanely good run of albums with 1989's 27-song set, The Band that Would Be King. The cover finds Jad Fair in the boxing ring with Elvis Presley and the music within finds the band on fighting form. Opening with the positive rush of ‘Open Your Eyes/Close Your Eyes’, Fair reassures us that “dreams really do come true”.

In fact, the opening few songs here have the feel of a band enjoying the good times. Perhaps ‘Daytona Beach’ sums up Fair's state of mind best as he croons: “Girls and cars and girls and fun/ Hot pizza from the kitchen”.

The music on display is pretty varied, from the Neil Young, Rust Never Sleeps-type rocker ‘Lucky Star’ to the Beefheart-scrambled blues of ‘Buried Treasure’, the loved-up simplicity of ‘I Live for Love’, and the perfect art-pop of ‘Put Some Sugar on It’. This album is a hearty treasure trove of spontaneity, excitement and incredible songwriting.

I really can’t recommend this collection of albums enough. Half Japanese are simply one of the most deliriously brilliant bands you could hope to hear. Passion, humour, noise and melody encased in two-minute paeans to love, sex, aliens, and grabbing life by the lapels. Along with bands like Beat Happening, Half Japanese represent just how original, exciting and plain bonkers ‘indie’ really can be.

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