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Japancakes - Belmondo

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Artist: Japancakes

Album: Belmondo

Label: Darla

Review date: Jun. 25, 2002

Whatever sentiment Japancakes were courting when they made their first album, it appears, in its most recent form, to have retained its magnitude but reversed directions. A number of important things have been said about the contrasting effects of happiness and unhappiness. The most relevant conjecture in this vein, when applied to Japancakes’s emotional trajectory and its artistic consequences, concerns accommodation and availability. An unhappy person, no matter his endowment, is preoccupied and is therefore not present and is a lousy host; a happy person is generally accommodating and available.

Part of Darla’s “Bliss Out” series (other releases under this imprint include Windy & Carl’s Antarctica and American Analog Set’s Late One Sunday) Belmondo betrays its ambient pretext. While the album retains the pastoral majesty of If I Could See Dallas and The Sleepy Strange, its moodiness restricts its drift. Because certain tracks are so decisively emotional, the companionship they provide is a bit more work than the quiet hitchhiker you might have thought you were picking up. By virtue of its sheer variety, Belmondo requires more active listening than its ambient packaging might suggest. Maybe this is for the better.

For what is a soundscape but a scaffold onto which we release the ridiculous gymnasts of our own emotional experience? And if we are fortunate enough to have a present engagement - and a limber imagination - we graft that too onto the ether. While it’s certainly structurally conducive to ambient listening procedures (the album is broken into six nice ‘n’ easy tracks, each internally repetitive) Belmondo isn’t as adaptable as its promoters promised.

The string-heavy third track, “Theme for a Film,” is a straightforward dirge, making it impossible to feel anything but sorry. But forgive them this emotional tyranny; once you submit to your grief, Japancakes will do your funeral anyway you like it: western, gothic, military. Because in spite of its pointedly pervasive mood, “Theme for a Film” contains all their technical tricks: strings, pedal steel, xylophone, and a fading drumbeat at the end. It is a beautiful song. And the ensuing resurrection, “Always Stuck with Leaving”, which is an echo of the first track, makes for a handsome hangover.

“And Begun”, the first song, is a perfectly distorted introduction, the effect of its steel pedal warp culminates in a mixture of baptismal water sounds and Science Fiction. And the sixteen-minute-long second track “Handguns and Firearms” is even nobler than its title suggests. Contented and ethereal as any of the best work on If I Could See Dallas, “Handguns and Firearms” achieves, with absolute clarity, the bifurcated sensation of moving toward one place and away from another.

The last two tracks are a compromise – a rat-tail on an otherwise regal ‘do. The fifth song, “Duluth 7.5”, which begins a bit like a Built to Spill song, seems more like the lament of a dumb loser than anthem for the melancholy hero that the first part of the album let us think we were. Then the cacophonous last track – appropriately titled “Another” – comes trilling in like a bird down the flue. It’s interesting if only for its contrast with the band’s more melodic repertoire, although I won’t be surprised if it catalyzes a parricide or some bad painting.

It’s a shame that Belmondo tapers as it does; given their talent for ripple-effects, its authors seem to work better extraspectively. But for better or worse, Japancakes are still about manifest destiny, even if they’re expanding inward.

By Hillary Mintz

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