By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Sometimes it's better when plans fail, when ideas go nowhere, when you don't get what you want. For instance, if Brant Rackley and Eric Berg had gotten what they wanted when they were starting the band that eventually became Japancakes, the group would have been, as Rackley now says, "in the vein of the good ol' Stereolab sound." Meaning: Japancakes' sweeping, weeping instrumental C&W would have been cluttered by a Laetitia Sadier clone singing about Marxism (or God knows what) in bored, breathy French. But, as it turns out, Rackley and Berg never found who they were looking for. Or, to put a finer point on it, they never really, you know, looked.
"We didn't even try anybody out, I don't think," Rackley says of his Athens-based band. "So we just started playing these extremely long fucking songs. You know, just kept going and going and going. All of a sudden, we were like, 'Well, I kind of like the way this feels.' So we just kept it instrumental. I don't know. I think it's kind of evolved into something different, but for the most part, I guess we had it in the back of our heads that it would just be an instrumental band."
Fortunately, Rackley and Berg kept playing those extremely long fucking songs, though they continue to kick around the idea of bringing in a singer--maybe for an album, maybe just to experiment. ("Like, we were toying with the idea of trying to get in touch with Chan Marshall from Cat Power," Rackley says. "She's from down in Atlanta, and of course, she's pretty big in the music thing, so it's hard to tell ya if she'd even know who the hell we were or whatever. But we've got some friends up here that went to high school with her and shit, so the possibility of that's a lot greater than getting, like, Thom Yorke or something to sing for you. Which is still, you know, a choice that I'd make, but I doubt that would happen.") But Rackley suspects what others can hear in Japancakes' music, especially on the just-out The Sleepy Strange, released in February on Athens' Kindercore Records. Words, no matter who happened to be singing them, would just get in the way, like a billboard on the lip of the Grand Canyon or too much makeup on a beautiful woman.
On The Sleepy Strange, John Neff's pedal steel says more than an entire choir full of insurance salesmen could, even though most of the time, he seems to be going in circles, which might be, well, because he is. Everyone in the band--drummer Rackley, guitarist Berg, cellist Heather McIntosh, bassist Nick Bielli, and Todd Kelly on keyboards--orbits around each song, repeating the same phrase over and over until it sounds different or you start hearing different--whichever comes first. It all comes together best on "Soft N EZ," the shortest tune on the disc at just under five minutes, though you wish it would go on forever. Rackley keeps time like a heartbeat, and Berg and Bielli nudge the song along ever so slightly, while Neff's pedal steel chases waterfalls until they run headfirst into Kelly's gentle synths and McIntosh's chugging cello. Just one high point on a disc full of 'em, refining the sound the group first brushed against on 1999's If I Could See Dallas.
"It was the kind of mood we were in, the way we were writing it," Rackley says. "I think the first album is really good, in terms of how busy [it is] and how there's something always going on. We just sat down and were writing stuff one day, and it just turned out to be, you know, we're not going to use as much electronic stuff. Kind of keep 'em where the only way you're really going to hear 'em is if you've got headphones or shit on. And, I don't know, it just turned out that way. We felt like doing a nice, softer album this time."
The result is the best country album I've heard in a long time. And yes, it is one.