Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Japancakes Covers My Bloody Valentine's Classic, Loveless

It took two years and 19 studios to record - and it nearly bankrupted their record label, but the result was arguably the most influential album of the 90s. In 1991, My Bloody Valentine released Loveless, a wall of distorted, warped guitars with a great depth of undertones and textures burying breathless vocals, bass and drums. The resulting sound is simultaneously loud and delicate, enormous and intimate. While the album wasn't as commercially successful as hoped for, it won the highest levels of praise from critics and musicians alike. Unfortunately, Loveless was the band's second and last full album.

My Bloody Valentine's gutsy approach to recording extended to their shows. I saw them play at the CMJ festival in New York; in the middle of one song they struck a note and stayed there, playing it over and over for 23 minutes. (Literally 23 minutes. My friend timed it.) It was a strange experience; I went through a range of reactions: impressed, annoyed, amused, angered, disbelief, tripped-out, thoughts of leaving (and a number of people did leave!). Finally, I was amazed when we were released from this strange frozen moment as MBV seamlessly continued from where they had left off.

I would have thought it foolhardy to cover a song off Loveless, much less the entire album. It's near perfect from beginning to end. Yet Japancakes (pictured above), an experimental group from Athens, GA, did just that, giving this shoegazer masterpiece new life in their 2007 instrumental remake. Steel pedal guitar and violin replace the vocals, showcasing MBV's songwriting, which has sometimes been eclipsed by their ingenious production.

One might be tempted to dismiss the remake as a muzak version of a classic, but Japancakes has done a masterful job of replacing the textured layers of distorted guitars with piano, flute, cello and organ sounds. The songs are given space to breathe, evoking vast spaces with their sparse instrumentation and faint Western twang. The remake doesn't rival the original, which changed the course of music in the early 90s. But, then, Japancakes doesn't try to compete with it. The album is a refreshing interpretation of a classic.

Below are the original version of "Soon," the last track on Loveless, and Japancakes cover (static video). Note: For some reason there is a lot of dead time at the end of the Japancakes video.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Craig Wedren Covers Sparks' "Sherlock Holmes"

One of the more versatile songwriters of the past couple decades, Craig Wedren, first made his mark with the art-punk band, Shudder to Think, in the 80s and 90s. They were one of only a few bands to make the jump from Fugazi's legendary Dischord Records to a major label, Epic Records. Although they didn't receive the commercial success they deserved, Shudder won over critics with their progressive, yet catchy hooks and Craig's powerful, almost operatic, voice. Before Shudder to Think disbanded in 1998, they had also composed soundtracks for High Art, which consisted primarily of electronic ambient moods, and First Love, Last Rites, which featured songs from a wide variety of genres and eras - and boasted an impressive array of guest singers, including Liz Phair, Robin Zander, John Doe and Jeff Buckley in one of his last recordings.

Craig has gone on to write music for numerous television shows (including The State, Dawson's Creek, and The Whitest Kids You Know) and movies (Role Models, Reno 911, School of Rock, etc.). In 2004, he released an electronic dance album with his NYC-based band, Baby. He followed that with the 2005 release of his first solo album, the mellow, guitar-oriented Lapland. Recently, he released a collection of odd, darkly ambient recordings he made during the mid 90s, The Spanish Amnesian. (Indeed, Craig has come a long way since he sang in my high school new wave cover band, Freudian Slip.)

Currently, Craig is composing for HBO's hit show Hung and Showtime's Emmy-winning United States of Tara. But he recently took time out to have some fun covering Sparks'
1982 song, "Sherlock Holmes" (complete with a video). Unfortunately, the song is not available for purchase yet, but you can check it out here:

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Unbunny: Underrated

I was introduced to Unbunny in 2002 by my friend, Brad (aka b. mossman, who now writes songs for Wow Wow Wubbzy.) Brad was playing a show in Portsmouth, NH with a stripped-down version of his San Francisco-based band, Warm Wires, consisting of just him and tabla player Peter Altenberg. He predicted I'd love the headlining band, Unbunny, saying the singer remineded him of Neil Young - when he was, well ... young.
High expectations generally produce disappointment. But despite the cramped club and lack of a sound engineer, Unbunny lived up to Brad's hype. Singer/songwriter, Jarid del Deo, led his trio with a sweet, smooth voice (indeed reminiscent of Neil Young's) which carried beautifully over the textured, folk/country guitar and tight rhythm section. The lyrics were smart and painted strange, compelling scenes. ("Even with the spotlights on them / swans are fainting.") The only disappointment was that the set was much too short -- maybe 10 songs before a noise ordinance went into effect and the band had to stop playing.
At that time, Unbunny had two releases out: Fission Romance the West (1995), a rough, but excellent collection of home recordings, and Black Strawberries (2002), still lo-fi, but more polished. I purchased both from Guy Capecelatro, owner of Two Ton Santa Records, which had released Black Strawberries, and who has been an ocassional member of the band.
Since then, Unbunny has released "Snow Tires" (2004), "Typist" (2005), and "Sensory Underload" (2008), the last a collection of previously unreleased material. While the band has won some critical praise, they certainly deserve more attention than they've received. That may in part be due to the fact that they're not big on self-promotion. However, they do have a FaceBook page (that doesn't include any songs), and a MySpace page with four songs on it.
Rumor has it that the band will be releasing a new album in April followed by a Northeast mini tour and a larger European tour.
LISTEN: One of my favorite Unbunny songs is off their second release, Black Strawberries: "In a Way." Note: the video for this song is static, but Unbunny does have some videos of songs from "Snow Tires" on youtube.