For the product of a self-described socially awkward homebody, Memory Tapes
' 2009 debut album, Seek Magic
, sounded remarkably expansive and exploratory, bubbling its way through seemingly limitless sonic tangents and stylistic intersections to forge something at once fresh-feeling and immensely nostalgic. Like its predecessor, Player Piano
was created in Dayve Hawk's New Jersey home studio, and it plows a similar if somewhat narrower musical swath: dreamy, texture-heavy electronic indie pop, dripping with reverb and lousy with synthesizers, commingled with elements of dance, rock, and new age that are in this case considerably toned down, if still discernible. This time, though, the visceral effect of the music more closely matches the insularity of its origins; these tracks feel simpler, smaller in scope, less adventurous, and more inward-focused. Having nailed a sprawling but undeniably evocative sound the first time out, Hawk's evident focus here is on the songs themselves: save for a few relatively brief instrumentals, his vocals are notably more prominent than ever before. "Sunhits" is the most blatant of the album's big pop stabs, with its clean, sheeny new wave guitar hook, midtempo New Order
synth beat, and warmly harmonized refrain full of caustically double-edged positivity ("life is a dream if we never wake up..."). "Worries" and "Today Is Our Life" are equally vibrant in spots, though both tend to lose focus and momentum beyond their choruses (the latter in particular can't seem to stay in one genre for more than a minute, squeezing in a razor-sharp, out-of-nowhere guitar solo and a church organ/sitar breakdown along the way). While these aural color bursts are at least decently interesting (unlike, say, the drab, plodding "Yes I Know" or the rote-feeling "Offers"), few of them make for particularly great pop songs, whether that's due to overly distracting arrangements, Hawk's thin, lackluster singing (which is often distorted through layering and textural manipulation, but in any case typically the least compelling sound here), or the nagging similarity of many of his melodies. (The sparsely folky "Fell Thru Ice" is appealing but slight, leaving the genial, sweetly patient "Wait in the Dark" as perhaps the best of the lot.) Player Piano
offers enough of Hawk's characteristically inventive sonic tinkering -- including, the title notwithstanding, an intriguing emphasis on organ sounds -- to merit repeated listens, even if these productions do sound worrisomely flat at times. But juxtaposed with the singular alchemy he achieved on Memory Tapes' debut, it's hard not to hope Hawk focuses his energies a little differently next time out.