[14 March 2008]
I first heard Japancakes not because I liked the band, but because of their record label. During the late 1990s, Kindercore Records was my Rough Trade, my Factory. I bought everything they released, and invariably loved it, from Of Montreal’s multi-hued pop to Kincaid’s hyperkinetic and tightly wound indie rock. So I found it a little odd when I first played Japancakes back in 1999 and heard none of the label’s typical traits: saccharine songwriting or twee, ‘60s influenced pop. Instead, into my ears streamed a dreamy groove of instrumental vistas as big and wide as a cloudless, blue sky. Songs stretched onwards and upwards, anchored only by human touches that often brought the swirling sounds back to earth with a tug of pedal steel or a scrape of cello.
Formed in 1995 by rhythm guitarist Eric Berg, Japancakes was initially pulled together as a performance ensemble rather than a professional band. The story goes that Berg cobbled together 10 musicians, stuck them in a studio and, in a nod to Terry Riley’s In C, asked them to riff on a D chord for 45 minutes without rehearsal. These performances continued with a number of different musicians, before Berg settled on a steady group and the band’s instrumental soundscapes began to build, layering instruments and tones atop simple, yet subtle, rhythmic structures. Their early output—two albums and an EP—were released by Kindercore, but the label went out of business in 2003 due to circumstances that are far too labored to get into here, and the records eventually lapsed into obscurity. (Kindercore has since been resurrected, but with none of their original roster onboard).
Luckily, for fans of lilting instrumental music that evokes images of cowboys playing harmoniums in the desert sun, Darla has deemed these records worthy of a re-release. They are. The band—fleshed out at the time by John Neff on pedal steel, drummer Brant Rackley, keyboardist Todd Kelly, bassist Nick Bielli, and cellist/keyboardist Heather MacIntosh, along with Berg—did continue to record. Last year they released two albums on Darla—one was a song-by-song cover of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless—but it is these early releases that defined the band’s sound. For the uninitiated, they are the best place to start.
For a band bereft of words, it sure takes a lot of them to describe Japancakes. If I could See Dallas, their debut, is a texturally improvised and tectonically produced album that was spliced together by compiling snippets of their various studio performances. Released in 1999, its hypnotic mix of organic elements and electronic accoutrements, rock and ambience, synths and strings, still sounds surprisingly fresh today. Riffs re-circulate within themselves, synths soar like laser beams and a constant undercurrent of skittering percussion gently nudges everything along. Opening track “Now Wait for Last Year” could be held up as Japancakes’ calling card. Floating off on a simple mix of organ and gentle guitar picking, Neff’s pedal steel suddenly kicks in like an open road, stretching the song to its limits before it bends back in on itself like a musical boomerang. The track, like most of their oeuvre, doesn’t actually go anywhere, but it doesn’t need to. It meanders, takes its time, repeats itself. It pulls you down like a strong undercurrent and doesn’t let go. It’s simple, subtle, and, for all its repetition, surprisingly good.
The band’s liberal use of repetition can get wearisome, though. At 73 minutes, If I Could See Dallas is a tad too long and, taken in one dose, can be a little laborious. As one could expect of a group founded on the idea of performing a D chord for 45 minutes with no rehearsal, the music Japancakes make does have a tendency to devolve in on itself. On certain occasions, however, this also works in their favor. They have an innate ability to lull the listener into a false sense of soothing security, before something—a pedal steel, an organ riff—ostensibly kicks in when you least expect it, nudging the song in a slightly different direction.
Emblematic of this approach is the 12-minute epic “Elephants.” A shimmering guitar acts as a backdrop for an outpouring of ever-rising pedal steel that twists and turns, disappearing and re-entering, as you get lost in the band’s shoegaze country. At the other end of Japancakes’ musical spectrum, “Westworld” whirls along on a symphony of analog synths, which, with its driving beat and electronic blips, sounds like Stereolab stripped of Laetitia Sadler’s vocals and fed them through an Atari.
This electronic influence follows through onto the band’s second release. Culled from the same sessions that formed If I Could See Dallas, Down the Elements showcases Japancakes’ more experimental side. Despite comprising just four tracks (technically making it an EP) Down the Elements still clocks in at a little less than 40 minutes. And, while not as intensely layered as their debut (there’s no pedal steel to be found), the EP acts as an accompanying palate cleanser stuck between two albums of juicily layered instrumentation. It’s the sound of the band expunging their minimalist side. Opening track “Version” showcases the hypnotic rhythmic sensibility that was buried beneath swathes of sound on their debut, while “A.W. Sonic”, which follows, finds the band riffing (again) on the sound of Stereolab’s fuzzed up analog synths. But it’s the EP’s closing tracks that signify a shift in the band’s output. The sound collage that forms “Sputnik” is as minimalist as they get and merges seamlessly into the ambient and elongated Brian Eno-aping title track.
With their experimental side fully satiated, Japancakes pulled out all the stops for their aptly named second album, The Sleepy Strange. Released in 2001, The Sleepy Strange is an instrumental masterpiece, a swirling, psychedelic and symphonic take on cosmic country music that speaks volumes, despite its obvious lack of words. At a little over 45 minutes, the album—which refines, rather than re-invents their hypnotic instrumental sound—is easier to digest than their debut. The seven tracks flow like separate estuaries into a greater whole. “The Waiting”, which opens the album, is a lovely, lilting waltz built on chiming guitar and the kind of pedal steel licks that tug on your heartstrings as well as your ears. Neff’s pedal steel features more prominently throughout this album, adding to its overall cohesiveness. Yet, despite this, the band is still as disparate as ever, evoking various moods from the melancholic opening track to the keyboard-driven and downbeat “Vinyl Fever”. But, whether they are building on the brooding cello of the title track or the light and airy piano and pedal steel propulsion of “Soft N EZ”, there is a constant soothing feeling that coats the album like a lozenge.
Unfortunately for fans of the band, there’s nothing new here. These albums haven’t been repackaged. There are no additional tracks or extra liner notes. But for fans of instrumental music, or any music that makes emotion its modus operandi, Japancakes’ first three releases should be integral parts of their record collections.