Waking Hours

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The challenging thing about making mellow music is keeping it interesting for the audience as well as the musicians. Over the course of their career, Japancakes has managed to do that, balancing the calm with the challenging, but never more so than on Waking Hours. It's not that the album is a massive step forward or attempts any radical changes to the band's formula; instead, it distills the best things about their sound into something subtler but still very appealing. While the group's pedal steel, violin, keyboards, bass, and percussion are all present and accounted for, they're applied more sparingly, particularly on pieces like the album opener, "Keep Drawing Suns": opening with languid drones, the main melody isn't introduced until just over two minutes into the track, creating a relaxing but expectant mood. Even on "Thumb on the Scale" and other lusher pieces, Waking Hours is Japancakes' most restrained work, which only heightens the album's atmospheric nature. The dreaded term "soundscapes" could be used to describe the album and its songs, but only in the best possible sense; Waking Hours washes over listeners, allowing them to pay as much attention as they want to their dreamy surroundings. Though this might be the first Japancakes album that could be invited to a dinner party, close listening to the gorgeous interplay of pedal steel and violins throughout Waking Hours -- and particularly on the delicately warm "Tremor" -- as well as its other lovely details really pays off. And while the album is mostly evocative, it also offers plenty of different moods and movements within its subtle, sunset-hued palette. "Far From Here" is Waking Hours' most active, accessible moment, suggesting a less sand-blasted Friends of Dean Martinez or Calexico; "Untitled One" and "Untitled Two" are short piano interludes that are both solemn and somehow oddly comforting. This mix of sunshine and clouds is especially apparent on Waking Hours' epics. "Stay Dizzy," a gently rolling Western waltz, is an eight-minute sonic caress; the album closer, "Where Things Leave Off," begins as a spooky sleepwalk with an almost baroque electric piano line and brooding strings before heavy guitars and drums come crashing in, recalling the ghostly rock of Friends of Dean Martinez's equally excellent Random Harvest. Focused and reflective, pared-down and grown-up, Waking Hours isn't Japancakes' poppiest album, but paradoxically enough, it might be their most accessible and consistent.

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