BEST OF 2011: 5. Memory Tapes – Player Piano

When keyboards and synths are your primary language, it’s always going to be tricky to be catchy without being cheesy, to be melodic without sounding retro. With its delicate ‘Music Box’ pieces to top and tail the record, ‘Player Piano’ is a curious, electronic beast. Having garnered critical praise for his debut album, Dayve Hawk – the man behind Memory Tapes – opts here for a more homogenous atmosphere, using upbeat, often poppy refrains to soundtrack largely gloomy lyrics which reflect on spent relationships and crushed hopes.

MemTapes

Sun Hits’ and ‘Wait In The Dark’ are two of the most out and out pop moments on ‘Player Piano’, the former with a neat bit of chiming guitar and a swooning chorus, the latter building into a melodic synth monster. Its one of those tracks which after a few listens becomes the bedrock for an album. An album, it should be said, which was initially bandied about as “a Motown suicide note,” amongst other things. The idea that it represents a woozy flipside to a world of incessant joy stands up and does offer some insight into an album of sad songs set to happy tunes.

‘Humming’, with its hymnal opening, squally synths and sudden retune to delicate chimes across a frail, muffled drum machine pattern, is a fascinating midpoint. It could be developed in all kinds of directions but it only exists here in this brief form, one of a number of moments which hint that the next mutation of this project will sustain interest in Hawk’s work.

‘Worries’ comes on like a disconsolate ‘Self-Preservation Society’ played out on the organ setting of a keyboard, before the vocal appears, as if from a distance. The lyric “Heaven is waiting, heaven is standing outside your door” continues the sense of gloom dressed up with jovial melodies, suggesting that death isn’t ever that far away.

Fell Thru Ice’ is one of the most sparse moments on the album as Hawk describes a relationship ending, pushing his already quite reedy vocals to breaking point. The haunting confessional gives way to the three minutes of ‘Fell Thru Ice II’, beginning with tentative ambient strains which slowly build to a sense of an emboldened fresh start. That even this briefly falls away, hints at another false dawn.

Player Piano’ is, I suspect, not an album I would have naturally gravitated towards, despite its utterly magnificent artwork. It appeared in the post as July’s choice from the short-lived Rise Record Club, run by the record shop of the same name. It didn’t immediately click with me, pleasant enough as it first seemed, and it is only through numerous plays in various different environments that it all slotted into place. The fact that I’d invested in this club made me more willing to give it a chance, knowing that it had been carefully selected for a reason. In times where those record shops still standing are finding ways forward, it was a shame to recently learn that the Rise Record Club had folded, but it demonstrates just what an invaluable resource these shops are to music fans. The sheer love of the music is what these folks thrive on and to have them flinging albums I may have otherwise completely missed  in my direction was an absolute pleasure. Over the next few weeks, as you shop for last minute presents or visit the sales in the betwixt Christmas and New Year lull, look out for this album and pick it up from your local independent record shop. They’ll appreciate it, and I suspect you will too.

BEST OF 2011: 6. Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer

The Fiery Furnaces are a band I’ve always been fond of, if not fanatical about. The wilfully jarring effects they often pursued could offset the blatant majesty of the vocals. Written largely on the piano, and with no worries about actually being really quite accessible, Friedberger’s first solo outing is a delightfully unassuming collection of quirky pop songs and it was one of several true surprises in 2011.

EF11

Centred around a period of Friedberger’s life in New York a decade past, the album is an autobiographical outpouring, underlined by the inclusion of several pages of a diary from the end of the album’s creation. ‘Scenes From Bensonhurst’ is a reaction to a friend’s experience at the hands of the internet: how easily people can be found, contacted and bothered. Titles like ‘My Mistakes’ and ‘Heaven’ are in no way cryptic, and a wide range of subjects are touched upon across the course of these ten songs in typically verbose fashion.

Her distinctive vocal style is, obviously, present but used in a more restrained fashion, sounding more soulful, more human. The early part of ‘Last Summer’ is littered with 70s style pop hooks; it even looks like one of those albums you find in the 1970s American Alt-Folk* section in a second hand record shop. As with so many group-member-goes-solo albums, it feels like the pressure is off and there’s no massive search for a concept or a ‘sound’. The warm, buzzing guitar which kicks in early on album opener ‘My Mistakes’ is glorious and jumps out of the speakers. You know, like music used to do before most of it was all mastered at the same sodding volume.

Friedberger’s tendency to rearrange the emphasis in words and sentences continues here and she’s said in interviews that she was interested in how the words sounded together, and not in terms of basic rhyme, but how they slotted together to form a verse or a chorus. It makes for a situation not dissimilar to when you listen to songs in a language you don’t speak – the vocals take on a role in the musical backdrop. This is reinforced by some great backing vocals on ‘Inn Of The Seventh Ray’, which bounce and echo all over the place, pushing the song in a different direction.

Having first listened to this album in the summer, it feels a little odd to be summarising its poppy delights while it snows outside. What I ultimately love about ‘Last Summer’ is its unassuming, but enormous, hooks. ‘Early Earthquake’ is a clap-a-long burst of euphoria which gently emerges from the end of the more complex ‘Owl’s Head Park’ and offers a fitting ending to an album which plays its trump card three tracks in. ‘Heaven’ is one of the most glorious tunes I’ve heard all year. It has a chug which would make for an easy segue into Take That’s ‘Shine’, it possesses Friedberger’s most soulful vocal of the whole record and it sounds like a classic old 7” single which would receive rave reviews and be described as ‘buried treasure’. The fact that it didn’t become a worldwide hit, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been.

*No? You need to visit a better second-hand shop.