Album Review by Jake Sanders
Player Piano, the second release from home-based electronic recording artist Memory Tapes, is a very welcome continuation of the gentle pop-electronica that the sole musician Dayve Hawk crafted in 2009’s Seek Magic. Like the last album, this one is rich with clear pop-melodies that jump playfully around, constructing a sound that’s both melancholy and charming, and both old and new. Hawk himself describes the music on the album as ‘keyboard-based psychedelic girl group songs, a sort of motown suicide note’. If that sort of description eludes you, I doubt you’re alone in that. There is something elusive about the sound on this album, partly because it does seem like a throwback, but one that still keeps the novelty of chill-wave. What eludes me on this album is the conflict beneath the surface, like with the pleasant synth sounds and high-pitched vocals that pull in a sunnier direction, but with lyrics that explore much more stressful that don’t seem to fit with the airiness of the music, including painful relationships and the inability to mend them. But I think its real success lies in Hawk’s ability to organize the different moods together flawlessly on each song, to make it all seem nonchalant and easy.
“Wait in the Dark” introduces the layers of synth-noise, clean bass and real percussion present on the rest of the album. It’s hard to deny the sadness of this one, though it still has an upbeat rhythm and a mobile instrumentation that implies cheeriness. “Today is Our Life” and “Yes I Know” sound like the music could delve into the sadness that‘s implied, but they end up sounding as pleasant and nonchalant as the others. Hawk has said himself about his recording style that “the music is my better nature, and the lyrics are me shouting myself down with self-loathing and cynicism. You end up somewhere between a genuine smile you’re trying to hold back, and a false smile you put on for a show.” That’s a really good description of the double-life of this record, or on a lot of chill-wave for that matter. The music is so well packaged and planned that it doesn’t cross the boundary that separates “chill” from anything else, but often it does imply something heavier, like in the lyrics. In a song like “Sun Hits,” there’s not even an attempt at getting at any other mood: it’s all candy. But with the last five tracks, Hawk does pull forward at the darker stuff in the music, with “Fell Thru Ice” and “Trance Sisters.” I was glad to hear the cataclysm and the desperation of the synths on these tracks, partly because it seemed like that’s what he was trying to get to the whole record, and partly because it shows that he’s capable of breaking those boundaries for himself.
All in all, this is a great second album in itself and for the interesting questions about recording that it inspires. One of the interesting things about the music is that Hawk records it all himself with live instruments, without a sequencer to help him. However, on this summer’s tour, he has been playing with two other musicians in a guitar-bass-drum set-up. This Wednesday, he’ll be playing at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it’ll translate live. I’ll be writing a review of the show later this week, so stay tuned!
Memory Tapes will be playing in Philadelphia at Johnny Brenda’s. Doors open at 8PM.