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the sleepy strange
The Sleepy Strange

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I still get a bit of a laugh when I think about Japancakes. I can't help but feel that with a name like Japancakes, they're fighting a darker nature, and that some day they'll give in to it and release and album of goofy novelty songs. But until then...

For the uninitiated, Japancakes is a multi-member ensemble, its diversely talented musicians originally assembled for the purpose of playing a single chord, repeatedly, in one unrehearsed, hour-long performance. They've moved a bit further down the creative line since then. While conceptually similar to Tortoise, Godspeed You Black Emperor! and other post-rock groups whose compositions are drawn from circular improvisation, Japancakes manage to create a completely different sound and aesthetic. Much of the credit for this sound can be assigned to John Neff's pedal steel work, and also to the presence of other less "rockish" instruments -- Heather McIntosh's cello, for instance.

It's been a while since I listened to Japancakes' If I Could See Dallas, or the Down the Elements EP, both of which came from the same recording session, but it seems to me that the steel guitar has a far stronger voice here. It's certainly a distinctive sound. While it adds an undeniable (and thoroughly welcome) country-rock twang to the group's music, it also plays to our conceptions of the whole Athens, GA musician lifestyle. It is slow and lazy, but possessed of unmistakable charm and refreshing honesty. These lazy, loping riffs are the sound of music that gets up at noon. Music that eats half a left-over burrito for breakfast. Music that doesn't wear shoes unless absolutely necessary. Perhaps it trades in modest unreality, but to listeners trapped in the grayish, flourescent-lit prison of office life, it's a powerful siren song.

The Sleepy Strange offers seven mid-tempo rock songs, most with the inevitable country leanings that a pedal steel creates. These pieces lack anything even remotely resembling a sense of direction or urgency; Japancakes' songs don't travel from Point A to Point B so much as wander up and down the street in front of Point A and dig odd little things out of the lawn. Some listeners will love it, while devotees of single-minded purpose will positively hate it.

Want to be charmed? Listen to the sunny guitar and piano of "Soft N Ez", and enjoy the gradual, indolent interplay of pedal steel and keyboard. Sample the string-driven opening to "This Year's Beat". Try and imagine yourself doing anything remotely active to this music. You can't. You shouldn't even bother trying. Listen to The Sleepy Strange while riding a bicycle and you'll feel a sudden urge to see how slowly you can pedal. Listen to it while driving and you'll pull to the side of the road, recline your seat and settle in for a spot of daydreaming. And if you listen to The Sleepy Strange while trying to write a review of it, it'll take you two or three hours to finish the review. Trust me on this one. Even when the band puts aside the pedal steel and moves into funk-inflected Tortoise turf for "Vinyl Fever", they have nothing serious or strenuous in mind.

To accuse Japancakes of being boring or pointless is to miss the point. Do you listen to all of your records with 100% of your attention? Do you sit bolt upright on the couch in front of the stereo, staring unblinkingly at the CD player's display, never reading or talking or dozing? Of freaking course you don't. So why expect a record to play to senses you aren't using? Not all recordings require the same level of listener attention, and The Sleepy Strange is less demanding than most.

Music, like tools, is intended to fulfill specific purposes. You wouldn't use a screwdriver to pound a nail, would you? So as long as your expectations are in line with Japancakes' apparent intent, you'll get some very basic, very lazy pleasure from The Sleepy Strange.

-- George Zahora
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