Graded on a Curve:
Half Japanese,
Greatest Hits

I honestly don’t know why Half Japanese isn’t my favorite band in the world. They’ve done the one thing I think a great rock band should do, namely defiantly refuse to become more proficient on their instruments. Lots of bands start like Half Japanese, but quickly forget their roots and practice for eight hours a day until they can actually play, thus ensuring their doom. They simply lack the vision and discipline required to never get any better, and before you know it they’re Emerson Lake & Palmer.

That said, while I’ve owned Half Japanese’s 69-track Greatest Hits (Safe House, 1995) for years, I’ve never once listened to it. I think I’m afraid their genius will ruin every other rock band for me forever, like Cows did for a while. But I’m a professional, god damn it, and I get paid to take the sorts of profound risks that listening to Half Japanese entails, so here we go.

Half Japanese can be accused of plenty of things, but short-changing their audience isn’t one of them. Sixty-nine tracks is a lot of tracks, and while Half Japanese sounds like they rehearsed some of them before releasing them, others show signs of an admirable dedication to the musical equivalent of Jack Kerouac’s “First thought, best thought.” Other signs of professional-level amateurism; Jad Fair plays an untuned guitar and has been quoted as saying, “the only chord I know is the one that connects the guitar to the amp.”

As for brother David Fair, who is no longer in the group although he still makes occasional guest appearances, he sometimes played drums and sometimes sang. They played as a duo until the early eighties, when additional members were recruited, and since then some 9,000 musicians (including VU drummer Maureen Tucker and Kramer, but unfortunately not the Seinfeld Kramer) have played under the Half Japanese banner. And while Kurt Cobain wasn’t one of them, he was wearing a Half Japanese t-shirt when he killed himself. Professional jealousy has always been my suspicion.

Okay: So now that I’ve listened to their greatest hits, I have to concede that much of what I wrote above is dead wrong. While Half Japanese are sometimes the glorious epitome of ineptitude, they also have written plenty of songs with cool melodies and sometimes sound like they can actually play their instruments. I must concede I’m truly distraught over this.

They certainly aren’t a one-trick pony. Sometimes they sound like Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band on really strong LSD (“Firecracker”), while other times they sound like a deranged noise band (“The Worst I’d Ever Do,”). And sometimes they sound too slick for their own good and lead me to believe they’ve secretly been secretly practicing, like on “Horseshoes,” which I find disappointingly good. Why, it even boasts one of the best guitar solos I’ve ever heard. They also sound a little too professional on “My Sordid Past,” with its great opening line, “I was a male prostitute for the FBI.” And the more I listen the better they sound, which isn’t good. I expected less, which is to say more; songs like “Daytona Beach” show signs of actual competence, while other songs like “Said and Done” are actually catchy. I never thought I’d have to seek out noise disasters like “Ride Ride Ride” and “Day and Night” but that’s the case, and I’m left to wear my disappointment like a thorny crown.

“Put Some Sugar on It” is a classic, perhaps their best song ever, and it’s even better than Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” which is high praise indeed. Their take on “La Bamba,” which they ingeniously render almost unrecognizable, is also great. As for “T. for Texas,” they give it all they’ve got, and it rocks balls, especially in the vocals department. A song like “Calling All Girls” reaffirms my faith in their commitment to ineptitude, and I relish every second of it, including the squealing ones at the end. “Movin’ on Up” is great and the perfect combination of minimal proficiency and maximum genius; “No More Beatlemania” dispenses with the proficiency and is ever greater, thanks in large part to Jad’s repeated cry of “Once is enough!” As for “Secret,” about Karen who has a secret admirer, it also shows signs of actual song craft, but while disappointed I still like it, especially when Jad asks Karen her dress size; nobody’s perfect, and if they occasionally slip into proficiency, I occasionally find I like it.

“B./C. Millionaires” is more like it. It’s minimally listenable, as is the great “U.F.O. Expert,” which hits you in the nose like a sock with a can of herring in it. The same goes for “Big Mistake,” even if its drumming is far too good and its saxophonist shows actual signs of knowing how to play his instrument. “Snakeline” is far too melodic and catchy but I like it anyway; the saxophone riff is great, and the chorus (it has a chorus!) is brilliant. But just when I begin to think the whole incompetence thing is a sham they throw “Little Records” my way, and the wonderfully dissonant “No Direct Line,” and the great 20-second blast that is “Mono.”

And look here: If I’m really going to be honest I find I like the songs that have actual melodies, like the pretty and perky “Better Than Before” and “Little Bit More” and the somewhat dissonant but still eminently listenable “Trouble in the Water,” which reminds me of Lambchop for some reason. And let’s not forget “Amazing Clock,” which is bona fide lovely. As is—sort of—“Penny in the Fountain,” which features some guitar playing that I find suspiciously slick. But I still cherish the songs that seem primarily written to annoy, such as “Something New…” and “Fire to Burn” and the wonderfully wrong “Guitar Solo,” which almost makes me reconsider my oft-stated opinion that no one ever played the guitar as wrong (meaning right) as Lou Reed on White Light/White Heat. And don’t even get me started on the big nose flick that is “Rosemary’s Baby,” or the ear-punishing “School of Love,” which in its way is the acme of Half Japanese’s whole aesthetic, just as “Evidence” is Half Japanese at their most embarrassingly competent.

Look, I could go on forever, but let me just say this: Half Japanese is only half the Half Japanese I expected. They show too many signs of actual musicianship to meet my (as I see now) overly hopeful appraisal of what they are about. For every untutored noise disaster like “Her Parents Come Home” or “Everything Is Right” they seem to have a “Silver and Katherine,” which is truly lovely. I mean this baby is a classic, as is “Miracles Happen Every Day,” both of which belong on that perfect jukebox that only exists in Heaven, and includes songs by all my favorite bands. And the same is true of “Roman Candles,” which is a great song just as “This Could Be the Night” is a great song, and by great I’m talking ruinously competent.

And you know what? I think I like the half of Half Japanese I didn’t expect to the Half Japanese I was expecting, which means that competency can’t be all bad, and total ineptitude may not be the all-saving grace I thought it was. Maybe learning to play, just a little, just a tad as in rhymes with Jad, is a good thing. And I’m glad I learned this lesson, even though I still dream of a band that never improves, not an iota, although I think I’ve already heard them, and I mean dozens of times when I lived in Philadelphia, and their name was The Dead Milkmen.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • Calvin

    So many great songs on this one that weren’t even mentioned in the review…. Acupuncture, Love at First Sight, I Know How it Feels, U.S. Teens are Spoiled Bums and of course, One Billion Kisses, the one with the best melody…but many of these songs have no melody whatsoever, and only slight hints of chord progressions. Underground rock and roll at its finest. A great Daniel Johnston cover (King Kong)….the sublime Stripping for Cash, Red Dress, Nicole Told Me, Too Much Adrenaline…..almost every song is a hit.

  • Calvin

    Almost forgot The House I Live In. Probably the best, most soulful song that Jad Fair has done.

  • Calvin

    It’s missing a few songs though….from their first album (Girls Like That, Patti Smith) and from their second album (Spy, Love Lasts Forever Sometimes).

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