If the role of a judge is inevitably sombre, then this wouldn’t be a mood misplaced in judging Memory Tapes’ new album by its cover. As a title, Player Piano gives us a sense of Victorian-cum-Edwardiana far removed from the vaguely modernist pastoralism of Dayve Hawk’s debut outing as Memory Tapes, Seek Magic. The mood of the séance, of the all-too-fleshy ghost in the machine (or vice versa), is played out in the sinister yet charming album art recalling the troubled sexuality of the medium as liminal locus of interpenetration: the vulnerable body, the orifice-issuing ectoplasm, the speaker as spurting speculum, the Succubesque presence of the fox spirit.
But (proverbs about) books can be misleading. Where Seek Magic was a meandering and bittersweet exercise closer to the lo-fi haze and combinatory popsperiments characteristic of what we may now term classic hypnogogica, Player Piano strips out any mournful edges hiding in the shadows — we can thus consider the clouds of the cover to be nine — and reduces the sonic wooze, along with the experimentalism, which is neatly confined, and reframed into opening and closing fragments. Instead, Hawk espouses sunny, crafted pop songs, deployed within the 40-minute frame, as his vehicle of choice. This is hardly an original move, nor one which produces original music; but, having raised that criticism, the results are still far from unpleasant.
In terms of originality, this critique extends to Hawk’s lyrics; those phrases which can be distinguished drift by in a kaleidoscope of cliché, and, in particular, it’s hard to forgive a line like “Nothing’s a dream if you never wake up” (which also, in its evocation of “life could be a dream,” gives a sense of the debt the album owes to 60s pop, however secondary that may be in regard to its 80s sleeve-embroidered heart). Hawk’s voice is at times strained, a little too foregrounded to carry his falsetto, while the songs themselves remain ever so slightly indistinct from each other; and at times, particularly during the album’s less successful moments (generally those which are slower and more balladeering), we sway dangerously close to the featurelessness of easy-listening AM synth, along trajectories that fail to carry the paradoxically wacky weight of a Destroyer or Ariel Pink.
None of these, however, could be considered fatal flaws; as mentioned, there is nothing here of the Gothic or indeed the tragic. The songs themselves are well-constructed and engaging, employing a nicely varied sonic palette. Hawk has a particular gift for matters of timing, layering riffs and effects in and out of the mix in ways that maintain an unexpected momentum. (This gift was particularly apparent on the early and unrivalled MT single “Bicycle,” a “Cry Little Sister” for the chillwave generation.) These features are endearing, making Player Piano an album that one likes more than one expects to, at least in the stronger first half, and during its predominant upbeat moments. If all of this feels a little like damning with faint praise, I may add that at times I’m reminded, in the sonic strategies and affective tones Hawk engages, of the happier moments of The Cure circa Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, though Player Piano is a more plastic affair (and this isn’t intended in a derogatory sense). Like the craft of the best tracks here, the album itself describes a smooth and clearly bookended parabola, an unexpectedly rainbow bridge, but one that, unlike the most well-known of these, is a pleasure, not a revelation.