Japancakes Loveless – Mac Nguyen

The only way in which we’re able to compare such vastly unrelated albums is through criteria that focuses on how well they satisfy their intentions. Loveless has on endless number of occasions been said to be the ‘epitome’ of the shoegazing genre, not only paving the way for so many groups later on but reinventing a style. What changes were made between the original highly regarded classic and the instrumental revision from one of the most unique and underrated instrumental groups of this era. The instrument line-up is, for starters, revamped. Whilst the original consisting of nothing but two guitars, a bass and a drum kit washed over by a shitload of distortion, Japancakes hang tightly on nothing more than the original melodies to reconstruct the record the way they see it.

“Only Shallow” opens in similar dynamics, but the noisy, largely tremolo-strummed guitar of Shields is replaced by the highly distinct pedal steel of John Neff. A piano rhythm staccatos in the background while the drowned vocals are usurped by the gentle strokes of Heather McIntosh’s cello. Considering the wall of murky noise status quo in the shoegazing genre defined by Loveless, it was inevitable that Japancakes would offer much cleaner, separable sound.

“Loomer” sees Neff’s signature pedal steel take over Bilinda Butcher’s vocals in the original. The sound cleans itself even more as the line dividing My Bloody Valentine and Japancakes makes itself clearer. Whereas the original “Loomer” felt very much as the dreamy anticlimactic interlude to “Only Shallow”, Japancakes transforms its role beyond a segue and into its own realm and provides promise for the rest of the record. “Touched”, the lazy minute-long ditty that bridged the Loveless opening with what was to come is expanded into two-minute affair, equally subtle and moody but the original lo-fi mono sound is enhanced with the pedal steel, cello and piano, instilling validity into a piece that might not have seemed that way on the original.

As the original record progressively gets noisier, Japancakes almost feel a duty to counter this by achieving yet a cleaner effect. “To Here Knows When”, the dreamy, droney, noisy masterpiece again has McIntosh’s cello driving the vocals. The drums are brought well out of their subtle execution on the original, and Nick Belli’s melodic bass grooves reminiscent of If I Could See Dallas remind us that this is still Japancakes at the wheel driving us nostalgics down memory lane.

In keeping with cleaner, quieter pattern of progression, Japancakes turn the dynamics down another notch on “When You Sleep”, turning it into a prolonged moment of peaceful introspection. Whereas the original was driven by the unmistakable squeals of the opening melody fervently strummed by Shields and dressed in layers noise-washed guitar and aggressive drumming, the Georgia six-piece xylophonically soften the melody, accentuate the Butcher-Shields dual vocals in the form of cello and disperse echoes of Neff’s dreamy pedal steel. It’s almost the tribute album’s crowning touch.

“I Only Said” more or less continues the instrumentation pattern from “Sleep”, adding into it a steady but somewhat monotonous drum rhythm that’s different to the original. The pedal steel takes the front seat for the song’s entirety in all its melodic aspects, including the elusive vocals from the hazy original, inevitably country-fying it to the point where it could slip away unnoticed on an instrumental Dwight Yoakam record. “Come in Alone” doesn’t massively depart from the makeovers of the preceding tracks, “Said” and “Sleep”; the blasting distortion transformed into a slower, cleaner rhythm worked by a steady drum beat, again melodised by pedal steel and vocalised by keyboard and cello.

“Sometimes”, the quiet(ish) track from the original Loveless, is restructured to be far less monotonous than the original. The soft rattle of a tambourine and serene bass echoes lay the foundation for the pedal steel to take over Shields’ vocals, which are brought out of hiding amongst the guitar drones of the original and well into the forefront, and ornamented with evenly timed strikes of reverberating piano chords. “Blown a Wish”, opening in poignant fashion, sees McIntosh’s cello returning as the primary vocal substitute, melodically faithful to the original until Neff’s pedal steel re-enters offering a whole new interpretation of the melody and synergistically, with the pleasant jingle of a tambourine-piano duo, transforming it into a Christmas song.

The penultimate “What You Want” lives up to the word ‘penultimate’ in every sense—not just in the literal sense that it is the second last song, but the fact that it provides a masterful precursor to what is the ultimate ending to this amazing record. Taking the “loud-becomes-soft” motif flirted with throughout the record to the extreme, Japancakes transforms the idyllic tender passion in the original noise-bathed “What You Want”, arguably the loudest song on Loveless, into the softest; a tranquil piece of romance-inducing solace with the pedal steel vocals that could melt hearts like butter in a microwave.

While the changes created by Japancakes between this and the subsequent finale, “Soon”, comes at the expense of the memorable segue between the two on the original record, the way the finale track is captured is breathtaking. Opening with an acoustic guitar. There were many heinous injustices witnessed in the 90s. OJ Simpson was acquitted of a double homicide he clearly committed. But nothing, however, upset me quite as much as when Pitchfork Media decided to revamp their Top 100 Albums of the 90s only to replace Loveless with OK Computer as the number one album of the 90s, demeaning it to a measly second place. Incidentally, this is probably the best tribute album since The Tallywood String Quartet’s tribute to OK Computer.

Japancakes have established that somewhere amongst this homage lies a distinct authenticity, and credit is due not just to the legendary Irish four-piece but also to them for reawakening and rekindling our love for this masterpiece.