The seemingly purposeful eccentricity of Jad Fair's melodic sense, lyrical outlook, and willful ignorance about the guitar (he's never made a secret of the fact he doesn't really know how to play and doesn't want to learn) would seem to be the key to the chaotic tone of much of Half Japanese's recorded work. Or at least that's how it seemed before David Fair, the co-founder of the band and Jad's brother, left the group in the mid-'80s, making Jad the uncontested leader of Half Japanese. With their first album after David's departure, 1987's Music to Strip By, Half Japanese slipped into a period of relative coherence, with Jad's world-view pretty much intact but the music taking on a new focus that was a distinct change from the cacophony of their first albums. Volume Two: 1987-1989 collects three Half Japanese albums from the late '80s -- Music to Strip By, 1988's Charmed Life, and 1898's The Band That Would Be King -- and this music is far more accessible and conventionally melodic than anything on Volume One: 1981-1985, the first installment in Fire Records' reissue series. Of course, the performances are still sloppy and spontaneous, even if the accompanists are more traditionally capable of working their instruments, and Fair's obsessions remain constant on these albums -- horror movies, wrestling, odd stories he found in the newspaper, and women above all. (Though his small level of fame seems to have brightened his hopes about the fair sex; the almost-funky "Sex at your Parent's House" suggests he has no problem setting up a scenario, and when he threatens Sean Penn to a fight for the Material Girl's hand in "Madonna Nude," it's not hard to imagine he might actually land a punch.) But there's more joy and less meandering on these albums -- the jazzy polish of "Silver and Katherine" would have been unthinkable on Loud or Our Solar System -- and Fair's stream-of-consciousness lyrics speak of a growing confidence and sense of purpose, even if his themes still present themselves in short, somewhat frantic bursts. (Keep in mind these three albums deliver a total of 109 songs.) For longtime fans, Volume Two: 1987-1989 is an impressive and well-assembled study of one of this band's more interesting periods, and if you're looking for a way into Half Japanese's catalog, this a good place to start despite the heft of this collection.
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