According to legend, Japancakes formed in 1997 when Athens, Ga.-based Eric Berg got 10 musicians together on stage and, with little introduction and no rehearsal, they all played a D chord together for 45 minutes. I guess you would have to have been there. Though not exactly groundbreaking, Berg was pleased with the results and the group went on to record several albums, oftentimes employing a host of other chords.
The album opener Only Shallow is nearly as iconic for me as the album itself. The song blazes out of the gates, a tearing assault of distorted noise and thump, followed by Bilinda Butcher’s dreamy, almost-whispered vocal melody, setting up the conflict between a crushing wall-of-noise approach and a psychedelic vulnerability that pervades the entire album. Japancakes reveals its alternate approach just as immediately. There’s no real distortion, there’s no vocals, so no conflict between the instruments and the voice, nor between the instruments themselves. The somewhat stately piano line is a nice backdrop, but the better part of the tension that made the original so compelling has been removed, pretty though it still remains.
» Listen to Only Shallow by My Bloody Valentine
» Listen to Only Shallow by Japancakes
The second track might be my favorite on an album of favorites. The MBV version has a rolling thunder drum and bass line chugging along, and the guitars always sound to me as if they’re slipping capriciously in and out of tune. It’s also the shortest proper song on the album, getting right to the point and not hanging around. The Japancakes somewhat extended version doesn’t do a bad job of revising the string slides, and the new beat is chill, if not rolling or thunderous. On this song especially, though, the use of a slide guitar for the vocal melody strongly suggests a Muzak interpretation, if not a bit of country-western-ism. The latter of which I got nothin’ against.
» Listen to Loomer by My Bloody Valentine
» Listen to Loomer by Japancakes
When You Sleep is the first vocal appearance by Kevin Shields on the original album, and also one of the poppiest songs on a decidedly non-pop album. The haunting backing vocals do a fine job of undercutting the feel-good-pop keyboard and rhythm tracks. Interestingly, Japancakes manages a more affecting and somber interpretation with its string arrangements and slowed-down Rhodes keyboard. The slide guitar suits this piece a great deal more than the previous, accenting the central melody with dreamy wistfulness.
» Listen to When You Sleep by My Bloody Valentine
» Listen to When You Sleep by Japancakes
My go-to for mix-tape introductions to MBV has always been Sometimes. It’s also the song I listen to the most when I’m feeling unavoidably melancholy or when drifting off to sleep. There’s something simultaneously compelling and soothing in the glut of melodic distortion and Shields’s softly sung, hardly heard words. This is Loveless’s trump card. The jingle-bell percussion at the back of Japancakes’s track is perfect. It goes a long way to make up for the missing distortion, and the delayed guitar and heavy-handed piano help a lot, too. The oscillations of the organ at the end come as close to recreating the conflicted dynamic of the original Loveless as Japancakes, or probably anyone else, ever will.
» Listen to Sometimes by My Bloody Valentine
» Listen to Sometimes by Japancakes
The final track on MBV’s masterpiece maintains the trance-like guitar drones, but inserts a fresh, completely danceable tempo. Which I’ve always thought of as a pleasant send-off after the ornately sublime frenzy they’d just put listeners through. As much as the shoegazer handle is shorthand for disaffection and emotional vacancy, I can never get through this album without feeling like I’ve come through something affirmative and immediate. Soon is a nice comedown. Japancakes sticks to their guns and closes with another lush, technically proficient rendition. It’s not that their cover of the album is quite lacking. They hit all the right notes, but it’s not necessarily the notes that matter. MBV created one of the most uniquely signature sounds in rock music. Loveless was every bit about the tone they’d created as much as the words and melodiesprobably more so. Whereas MBV created an independent sonic fantasy which is beautiful, scary, dreamy, and fundamentally strange, Japancakes made a pretty reproduction, easy on the ears, but lacking the complexity of the source. A for ambition, though.
» Listen to Soon by My Bloody Valentine
» Listen to Soon by Japancakes