Britney Spears said something that, when Britney Spears mattered, probably ticked off a large contingent of discerning music fans.
In large typeface, Rolling Stone pulled her quote saying (more or less) that writing abstract, experimental stuff was easy; writing catchy pop songs was the hard part. After the initial indignation a Top 40-shunning listener probably felt, it started to ring true as the Internet’s dominance encouraged participation without the cover charge of artistic vision; you only had to wear your influences to meet dress code. For every Kid A, there are 20 sub-King of Limbs farts currently clogging up the blogosphere. For his Memory Tapes project, chill executive officer Dayve Hawk splits the difference between art and ABBA but doesn’t succeed either way. His new music (call it run-of-the-millwave) sounds like it was made with minimal effort, and not in a good way.
To Hawk’s credit, the media buzz may just make him want to withdraw. “Why don’t you crawl into bed/Turn out the light, get away from it all,” he suggests on “Wait in the Dark.” Vocals are the best part of his average new album, Player Piano, where every word is a surpremely unaffected nasal croon that sounds at once condescending and empathetic. “And if you touch, I turn away,” he sings in that Neil-Young-via-Ben-Gibbard voice, a reluctant representative from a fluid genre for which analysis always feels just out of reach.
Player Piano fails to grab, too, as it’s mostly pseudo-artistic slop short on hooks. Those things that turned Britney into Britney, bitch aren’t always necessary and yet successful songs without hooks usually find another sharpened device to sink into the skin. Not these.
This subgenre–we all know the name–succeeds because of its strong connotation of memory as a lustful object. Hawk, of all the laptop artistes, doesn’t conjure a single one with his music, though he’s set the bar to do so. His moniker isn’t just less Spinal Tap than his real name; it directly addresses indie rock’s fascination for the past in both intangible and tangible forms.
Cerebral escape is the raison d’être for the genre, but here, it’s tempting for the brain to simply drift away in a Homer Simpson-esque manner. Player Piano is rarely compelling, if ever.
One if ever is “Yes I Know,” whose basement rustlings and bedside drama keyboards recall ’80s pop’s worst moments that actually sound endearing in 2011. Hawk’s vocals are muddied but nonetheless intelligible, if only because he gives listeners enough time to grasp what he’s on about–he’ll drive a phrase like “this is it, don’t make me wait” into your skull like a nail into a plank of balsa wood. He appears to have the proactive mindset expected of someone with a song called “Today Is Our Life,” which is oddly incongruous with the album’s middling tone. On “Worries,” he sings “heaven is waiting outside your door.” Many of Player Piano‘s songs find him in this kind of advice-guy mode, giving an encouraging word to a confused or troubled person.
If you think Hawk should turn the counseling toward himself, he’s ahead of you. “When we wake up with a compromise/I’ll be crying with my eyes closed,” he says on “Sun Hits,” “I don’t think you really understand we can make it/It’s all right.” Time’s turnaround from present to memory is quickest in morning-after disappointments, longing for the possibility of the night before.
Likewise, Player Piano pales to 2009′s Seek Magic so much you’ll wonder if it was solely that EP’s initial freshness that made Memory Tapes so good.
“Lower your expectations of me,” he begs on “Offers.” Consider it done.
Memory Tapes – Player Piano Tracklist:
- “Musicbox (In)”
- “Wait In the Dark”
- “Today Is Our Life”
- “Yes I Know”
- “Fell Thru Ice”
- “Fell Thru Ice II)”
- “Trance Sisters”
- “Musicbox (Out)”