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. As he says about playing his guitar, “I am…untrained. For me, this is the ideal situation. Others may prefer acquiring rules and limits. I prefer that my art be directed by my heart rather than my brain.”
That heart-led aesthetic has been evident throughout that work that David and his brother Jad (the group’s vocalist) have done in Half Japanese. If they wanted their debut album to be a three-LP set of overdrive overdriven, clattering, unhinged odes to Patti Smith and Jodie Foster, angrily ironic screeds against Beatlemania and unrecognizable covers of “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” and “Tangled Up In Blue,” by God, they were going to do it.
Even as the music became more polished and catchy, and even when David Fair decided not to be a part of the recording process, the Maryland band never lost sight of the simple maxim of prizing enthusiasm and spirit over talent.
The albums captured in this second volume of an ongoing reissue series, though, feature some of the most polished playing yet heard on a Half Japanese album. It was at this point in the band’s history that they start to befriend some talented musicians who also happened to be fans of what Jad and David were doing. That’s why both 1987’s Music To Strip By and its follow-up Charmed Life were produced by Kramer (best known for his work with Galaxie 500 and his own band Bongwater). It’s also why everyone from New York jazz icons John Zorn and Fred Frith to NRBQ’s Terry Adams recognized the band’s unique greatness and joined in the fearless fray, if only for one or two songs.
Yet, no matter how accomplished the musician, they all fell in line behind the Fairs and their vision. That was the case even when they were writing original material for the band. Velvet Monkeys leader Don Fleming’s contributions to Charmed include a detuned, meandering instrumental (“Terminator”) and blues-leaning tunes that left lots of space for Jad’s harmonica squawks and John Dreyfuss’s freeform sax bleats. With this open-door policy to the band’s recording sessions came a lot of shifts in musical perspective. An album like Music To Strip By cycles through a variety of styles, landing for no longer than three minutes on freeform chaos, punk, country blues, strange psychedelia, a swinging vocals-and-drums-only cover of “Blue Monday,” and downright gorgeous lite-pop (“Silver and Katherine”).
Connecting these disparate elements is the unique voice and equally singular lyrical focus of Jad Fair. As David summed up in the box set essay: “What’s a good subject for a song? For me it’s love songs and monster songs.” Jad held true that same spirit throughout these three albums and many of the bonus tracks tacked on to each disc. He even went nearly as far out as on the group’s debut with songs about pro wrestlers, jeremiads against American youth (“U.S. Teens Are Spoiled Bums”), and silly anthems about a useless pet (“Bingo’s Not His Name-O”). But Jad’s most effective when pleading his case to the ladies of the world, laying bare his romantic and lascivious intentions. These are some of the sweetest and sauciest love songs ever recorded, and no one should have any doubt that he means every word of them.
This set should also lay to rest any questions about the importance of Half Japanese. Without them, we wouldn’t have the primitive pop of Beat Happening, the id-bearing beauty of Daniel Johnston, nor about two dozen twee bands from across the globe. As with any archival document like this, there’s the potential for new fans to grab a hold of the Fairs’ carefree, heartfelt spirit and embrace it as their own. And if that doesn’t happen, we can just wait patiently for Jad and David to open up their creative floodgates anew.