There's not a lot to some pop-oriented experimental music: a couple of catchy riffs and repetition, repetition, repetition. As a result, there's always the temptation to tart up songs with extra sounds, complicated time signatures and so on. But unless that kind of tinkering is done very carefully, it can suck the essence out of the stuff and replace it with that most dangerous of additives: pretentiousness.
On its new EP, Japancakes, an oddball contraption created by Athens, Georgia's Eric Berg, treads this tightrope like a flying Wallenda. Along with producer/engineer Andy Baker and a handful of fellow conspirators (none of whom are mentioned on the package's information-free sleeve), Berg creates instrumental music that's alternately stirring and meditative, straightforward and intricate, undemanding and daring. But whereas Tortoise, an obvious influence, can sometimes seem a bit clinical, Japancakes retains a garagey, hey-kids-let's-put-on-a-show feel. It's esoterica of a notably warm and inviting sort.
In "Version 1," the disc's appropriate opener, layer upon layer of sound coalesces like an onion assembling itself out of thin air: first a quiet synth whine, then a little high hat, random space noises, a drum-and-bass pattern, and a subtle mix of acoustic and electronic instrumentation that builds gracefully over the course of six hypnotic minutes. "A.W. Sonic," which follows, comes the closest to rock of any of the offerings, with Moog-era keyboard lines snaking their way across a tune that's half Alexander Courage, half Dick Dale -- the perfect soundtrack for the Silver Surfer. "Sputnik" is less compelling -- it's little more than a collection of rocket whooshes -- but it serves as an appropriate introduction to the title effort, a lengthy sonic collage that manages to infuse some cheekiness (like a concluding splash of sitar) into ambient stylings that might have seemed bloodless in other hands. This cosmic voyage is meandering, but well worth taking.
To some, Down the Elements will seem like an amateur's attempt at minimalism, and there's something to that: The band (which is also represented by a full-length, If I Could See Dallas) grew out of a stunt in which Berg and ten musicians played a single melody for 45 minutes straight. But its lack of polish might be Japancakes' greatest attribute. This is self- consciously adventurous music that never loses its pop.
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