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Wednesday, February 28, 2001

Sonic rocking chair

Posted By on Wed, Feb 28, 2001 at 12:00 AM

I’m sitting on the porch of a honky-tonk at dusk, watching the tumbleweeds continually bumping into the screen door as I sip my Corona and rock back and forth to the rhythm of the moment. No, I’m not. I just have my eyes closed while listening to Japancakes’ latest, The Sleepy Strange, a selection of instrumental music that’s not as mathematical as Stereolab and not as Euro-pop-moody as Air. This band is more along the lines of a deceptively nice and easily ambient West, the “West” part coming from the pedal steel guitar that works as a continuing sleepy signature throughout most of the tracks. Japancakes has this weird but comfortable sonic combination that not only takes you west of the Mississippi, but up a few floors as well. In “This Year’s Beat,” cello strings climb the stairs up and over our heads into a classical reality that’s pushed through the clouds, causing a dirt-meets-ozone audio reaction, with ethereal elevator synth sounds riding around that good ol’ down-to-earth lazy cowboy steel guitar. Japancakes’ sounds are nothing remarkable in themselves. It’s their repetitive dance of patterns that cause you to want to crawl under your covers and play with your ducky mobile. Rumor has it that the group first learns a basic melody, but doesn’t rehearse before the recording session. Then, as they record the repeated tune, the simple sounds slowly transmute and unleash an array of tonal explorations, loosening all the hidden melodic branches within the beauty of a single sequence. If you could hear a fractal, “Vanishing Point” is it, with its meditative guitar trickle imitating waves against the shore. Or the aptly titled “The Sleepy Strange,” which may be tortoise-slow but with something very active going on. This instrumental sleepwalk is committed to getting something accomplished in the pacing of Goldilocks and the Three Bears wearing spurs — like a nursery rhyme moving underwater. These are long songs, slow but with a positive emotional aroma, like a lazy summer afternoon. Through repetition, Japancakes creates a mental space somewhere between its rudimentary keyboards, guitar and drums that’s incredibly enticing. Close your eyes on the last track, “Vinyl Fever,” and you’ll feel the black vinyl lounge chair supporting your weight as the sky-blue lava lamp morphs into globules and a way-too-relaxed girl dances, totally unaware of herself or anyone else in the room.

E-mail Anita Schmaltz at


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