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.
‘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.