Japancakes was bound to suffer from diminishing returns on its successive albums. But what post-rock band hasn’t? Tortoise and Mogwai, for example, have found it hard to live up to Millions Now Living Will Never Die and Young Team. Perhaps that’s the curse that occurs when bands decide to move vocals to the back burner. Without stories to tell, the music can too easily become background fodder.
So it’s interesting to find Darla re-releasing Japancakes’s first three recordings, originally put out on Kindercore and previously out of print for a few years. The first two full-lengths, 1999’s If I Could See Dallas and 2001’s The Sleepy Strange are fantastic (intervening Down the Elements EP is another story), but they reflexively highlight how unoriginal subsequent Japancakes albums have been.
Japancakes broke out of the burgeoning music scene in late-’90s Athens, Georgia. While not officially affiliated with the Elephant 6 collective, Japancakes shared with those bands a basis in sunny ’60s chamber pop. If I Could See Dallas (rating: 9.0) was a startlingly brave debut that found the band unafraid to follow any whim. That was Japancakes’s operating principle from the get-go: Band leader Eric Berg originally got all the members together to explore what would happen if everyone started playing a D chord and improvised from there.
“Elevator Headphone” swells and dips like the sea, riding the back of Heather MacIntosh’s cello. The album is long, with some songs, especially “Elephants,” stretching much further than necessary. But even the fifteen-minute “Dallas” keeps your attention as it cycles through its different sections in whirling 6/4 time, drunk on John Neff’s pedal steel. And “Allah Rahka” ends things well with a heavy dose of sitar spice and ace drum work from Brant Rackley.
The less said about Down the Elements (rating: 4.0) the better. It was a stale collection of four Dallas session leftovers. “A.W. Sonic” lends fuel to the bands detractors who say Japancakes would benefit mightily by adding some vocals. And the title track does just simply break down and rearrange some of the elements of songs off Dallas.
The Sleepy Strange (rating: 8.5) was an altogether different beast from Dallas, yet it was almost as great. It was more subdued, with the Southern twang of Neff’s pedal steel taking center stage. The album is shorter and heads out on fewer sonic excursions than Dallas. It’s all quite gorgeous and cinematic, making me wonder why Japancakes hasn’t done any movie soundtracks. A fade to nothing but chiming keyboard chords in the middle of “Disconnect the Cables” is absolutely breathtaking. And again the band shows it knows how to perfectly end an album with “Vinyl Fever,” which is more urban and dark than the rural, sunny mood of the rest of the album.
Subsequent albums have found Japancakes stuck in a rut. Belmondo (2002) had its pretty moments, but 2004’s Waking Hours was a boring career low. The band bounced back a bit last year with the decent Giving Machines and its instrumental recreation of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. But Japancakes may never match the heights of Dallas and Sleepy Strange.