March 13th, 1995; Safe House
God, this one took a bit. So, I was like, trying to figure out how to review this because itís got, like, sixty nine tracks. I donít particularly like the concept of Greatest Hits albums either, so the only real reason Iím reviewing this is because Half Japanese is probably a band that needed a Greatest Hits album, despite their lack thereof. Itís not all pretty and itís certainly not all listenable or even coherent really but thereís a lot of fun to be had with this.
A large part of Half Japaneseís mythos is perpetrated by their spattering of fans, both famous and not quite so. Their likely most well-known champion was Kurt Cobain, although other indie rock mainstays like Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth lauded the band, which through out the years, revolved primarily around the bespectacled Jad Fair. His off-and-on cohort/brother David Fair appears on a number of releases and guests include former Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker and avant-garde saxophonist John Zorn among many others. To get a feel for the Half Japanese approach to making music, I think itís best to refer to David Fairís enlightening essay, ďHow to Play Guitar":
ďI highly recommend electric guitars for a couple reasons. First of all, they donít depend on the body resonating for the sound so it doesnít matter if you paint them. And also, if you put all the knobs on your amplifier to 10, you can get a much higher reaction to effort ratio with an electric guitar than you can with acoustic. Just a tiny tap on the strings can rattle your windows and when you slam the strings with your amp on 10, you can strip paint off the walls... The idea is to put a pick in one hand and a guitar in the other and with a tiny movement, rule the world."
For the most part, the brothers Fair followed Davidís guitar manifesto (a humorous read if you can find the whole thing) embodies their early works. Ĺ Gentlemen / Not Beasts
debuted in 1980 after a couple low key EPs, introducing Half Japanese to the world via an amateurish, lo-fi singularity in the field of rocking and rolling. Greatest Hits
features several songs from the massive three-cd release, all of which are noisy, structureless anthems embracing the D.I.Y. punk ethos to the billionth degree. The songs from Ĺ Gentlemen
are, at least, intriguing, at most, revolutionary. I personally believe they fall somewhere in between, a interesting precursor to something, though Iím not quite sure what.
Throughout the years, Half Japanese slowly assimilated novel musical concepts like melody, rhythm and accessibility mostly through their various collaborators. Greatest Hits
takes us through the cacophonous home recordings right on through to 1995, around eighteen years worth of recordings packed in a concise package. Greatest Hits
is presented in a completely anachronistic fashion, early tracks co-mingling with latter day works. Itís very difficult to get through the collection in a single sitting, regardless of the fact that very few songs clock in over three minutes. Iíve had the thing for almost a year now and to quote a certain CGI ogre, itís got layers, like an onion. It takes a bit of time to get a feel for it, for them. Like I said at the beginning, I was trying to figure out how to review this thing so I figure Iíll just go track-by-track and pick out some interesting highlights.
- Plucked from the album The Band That Would Be King which featured John Zorn and Fred Frith as well as other Half Japanese regulars. While the collectionís opener, ďFirecracker," is familiar to a bulk of Half Japaneseís recordings, ďDaytona Beach" is a complete detour from their traditional sound. A brief one minute, forty-seven second deviation from their usual sturm und drang, ďDaytona Beach" is sunny and surf-rock inspired. The Band That Would Be King features the aforementioned John Zorn as well as fellow improvisionist Fred Frith. Iím assuming that itís Firth on this track because itís clearly not Jad Fair, whoís reckless (feckless) guitar heroics are usually fairly recognizable. It clearly is Jad on the vocals, though. His nasally delivery is a bit familiar to Lou Reedís or Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo, although his lyricism is mostly much less visceral than the former, much more naive and innocent. 3.5/5
Dance When I Say Dance
- I really like this track for some reason and I donít know why. ďDance When I Say Dance" features Australopithecus on drums, the Java Man on Sax and the Great Grape Ape on guitars. Ok, maybe not but it sounds like it. The caveman vibes that exude from a portion of the bandís work are never more present than on this track which sounds like 1,000,000 B.C. in stereophonic sound. 3/5
Calling All Girls
- An early-years track from Ĺ Gentlemen / Not Beasts featuring David Fair on vocals. David Fair just screams out the names of a bunch of famous gals, Yoko Ono, Shelly Long, Paloma Picasso, i.e. ďCalling Julie Christie! Calling Geraldine Chapman!" and so forth. All the while, drums pound like the world is about to implode, not to any particular rhythm but rather to a beat that sounds like a man falling down a flight of stairs. Quite frankly, itís not very bearable, although it does end with a bizarre call out to Patti Smith: ďP.S. I love you, I got stung by a love bee, he stuck his thing in me!" 2/5
Day and Night
- This is essentially Half Japanese at their strident best. Itís roughly a cross between Sonic Youthís sheets of feedback and an urgent primitivism. The caveman thump gets a go on here, with hooting saxophone squeals and Jadís anarchic guitar licks strangling each other in excessive amounts of distortion. ďThe hope, the faith/The joy, the pride/They all just seem to coincide," Jad comments with blase concern over the contradictory high energy beat. 4.5/5
- Perhaps the most outlandish electric blues you can find. The lead is classic blues but Jad takes a weird approach to the lyrics, which talk about pushing people to their witís end. ďAnd just like when they stabbed Rasputin, and cut off his head, and poisoned him and shot him, well, junk like that makes a guy mad." Half way through the song, thereís this really fucked up collage of sound effects. Otters, roosters, trains and ***. Iím still trying to figure that one out. 3.5/5
T is For Texas (Blue Yodel No. 1)
- Iím not too into country really so Iíve never heard the Jimmie Rodgers original. As such, Iím not sure if this is supposed to be a complete piss-take or how close it is to the original. Itís good fun southern country fun, though. If you canít stand Jad Fairís voice then this track wonít help. Fellow eccentric outsider musician Eugene Chadbourne duets with Jad, yodeling and busting out with the harmonica. Itís eight minutes long and actually fairly enjoyable, though itís comic value might have a part in that. 3.5/5
- The title track to the album Charmed Life is one of the finer accessible tracks on the album. Oddly enough, one of the staples of the Half Japanese assault is a mean saxophone, supplied here by continuous contributor John Dreyfuss. Hard stop-and-go drumming featuring a ďWipe Out" worthy drum break propels the track through less than two minutes of nice and steady rock. 5/5
Moviní On Up
- One of several covers on this collection from diverse acts like Daniel Johnston, Jimmie Rodgers, Big Mama Thorton and in this case, Primal Scream. Primal Screamís version from the album Screamadelica has a kind of folky devotional gospel feel, what with the chorale and the over all bombastic feel. Fair and Co. toss that out and make another hard rocking track, complete with wheezing guitar feedback. Itís not daring, not even very grating, just a smooth cover that fans of the original might enjoy. 4/5
No More Beatle Mania
- Very much like "Calling All Girls," "No More Beatle Mania" is another off the noisy Ĺ Gentlemen. All these songs are basically wildly grotesque guitars and pounding neanderthal drums, with the Fair brothers ranting about nonsense for the most part. The closest rock has ever seen to this level of amateurish music was The Shaggs, except the brothers Fair at their period were twenty times louder. Jad screams ďNo more Beatle Mania!" and ďOnce is enough!" and ďWe will not buy your records!" and ďDonít let them sell you a fashion-mania!" and ďWe could have Talking Heads mania!" and even name drops the aforementioned Shaggs. If nothing else, these songs might provide an excellent blueprint for writing the most difficult songs (if we want to call them that) in the world. 2/5
- This is one of the songs that, for me, made this whole collection worth it. Itís a bit disconcerting to go from careening electrics to an acoustic pop rock song but this is one of the songs from Half Japaneseís middle period which is not too far off from other indie rockers of the late eighties. Itís a quick and catchy jealous lover song that is full of charming naivety. The accessibility of the song is doubled simply by David Fairís presence on vocals. His voice is less irritating than his brotherís pinched vocals, which do eventually become a bit endearing once acclimated but not as readily as Davidís. Davidís acoustic strum works well with one-time drummer Jay Spiegelís patter. Throw in the little wood block claps and youíve got a fantastic pop song for your listening ears. 5/5
On the One Hand
- Phased out guitars and a twinkling keyboard hitting one note make way for Dreyfussí sax which dominates this number. Five years off of Ĺ Gentlemen / Not Beasts, ďOn the One Hand" is from the second Half Japanese album following the audio terrorism that is Ĺ Gentlemen. Itís interesting to see the progression they make from absolute amateurs to absolute amateurs to aided by professionals. ďOn the One Hand" makes for an interesting listen; itís not really in line with post-punk and itís still far removed from the traditional punk rock lineage. Thereís traces of both styles here, but itís a complete fairly unique beast for 1985. Excuse me. Not beast. 4.5/5
Trouble In the Water
- Another cut from the fantastic Charmed Life. I think Jad supplies the harmonica on here because itís just about as random and atonal as his guitar solos. It never detracts from the song though, keeping some semblance of cohesion with the rest of the tune. David takes the vocals once again here. I like Jadís voice but Davidís is much more appealing in itís rare appearances. Heís a pretty good lyricist as well, throwing out nervous, outsider observations like, ďThe safety on the shores/It might be something evil/Made of skin and sin and bone/Or it might be something gentle/Not unfriendly, just unknown." Class indie rock. 5/5
Ball and Chain
- The Half Japanese take on Big Mama Thorntonís blues classic ďBall and Chain" has some of the most blood-curdling screams ever recorded. I know a few other artists have done covers of the tune (Janis Joplin made it into a classic of her own) and more are probably better than Half Japaneseís but Jad puts his back into this one. Itís loose doomed blues, a recognizable riff that barely holds itself together between Jadís howls. 3/5
Deadly Alien Spawn
- When I first listened through this collection, this was the first song that caught my attention and held it for a bit. Like "1,000,000 Kisses" and "Daytona Beach," itís an anomaly within a ensemble of anomalies. Not much more than an amorphous mass, the song is about as close as Half Japanese has come to ambience, at least from the material Iíve heard. A portion of Jadís lyrics sound like tabloid headlines and b-movie titles and ďDeadly Alien Spawn" sounds like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Jad cries out paranoid fears, ďWe are them and them are we!/ Deadly Alien Spawn!/They are we and we are they!" The tune kind of builds from a slow atmospheric drone to a post-rock stumble and pulls out at the two-thirty-nine mark before it over does itself. 5/5
Fire to Burn
- While not always apparent, The Velvet Underground has a relevant influence on the works of Half Japanese. ďFire to Burn" reflects this fairly well, sounding like a cross between ďIím Waiting for My Man" and a broken vacuum cleaner. Velvets fans might be interested in this track which features Moe Tuckerís work on their Sing No Evil album. 3/5
Half Japaneseís Greatest Hits
sounds like searching through someone elseís attic. Some stuff is deeply personal but not to you. Other stuff has some relevance and you might be able to hawk it at the five and dime. Some stuff isnít more than useless, trinkets that have no apparent purpose, a piece of something bigger that already came and went or never came at all. And some things, well, some things are a Babe Ruth rookie card. Lots of artists in the history of rock and roll have the attic full of crap and Half Japaneseís is fairly big and has a diverse selection. If you are an indie or lo-fi rock fan with an interest in hearing a very sincere, perhaps seminal band, the amount of material and the quality of many tracks make the price of admission worth it. Iíve only touched on fifteen tracks here out of the possible sixty nine and thereís a lot other worthwhile stuff than the songs Iíve mentioned here. Thereís no better introduction to the Half Japanese catalogue. No... wait. Thereís no other
introduction to the Half Japanese catalogue.