Memory Tapes, ‘Grace/Confusion’ (Carpark)
Release Date: December 4, 2012
Imagine a dance album where every track has something in it that’s guaranteed to clear a dance floor. In both form and tone, the third studio album from Memory Tapes, Grace/Confusion suggests the Pet Shop Boys’ 1988 work Introspective, which in turn harkened back to late-’70s disco LPs via six tracks so long and substantial they didn’t require DJ-generated extensions. But unlike the New Romantics and synth-poppers he’s emulating — folks who lived their entire lives inside a club — Dayve Hawk says he’s rarely ventured far from rural nowhere New Jersey. Even after his neo-post-punk band Hail Social officially split in 2009, and he returned to his childhood practice of overdubbing himself for a solo project christened Memory Cassettes, Weird Tapes, and ultimately Memory Tapes (aliases meant to maintain his anonymity, though enraptured bloggers eventually uncloaked him), Hawk very possibly has never set foot on an actual dance floor. It shows.
Chillwave, that loner fantasy of what it’s like to be a new-wave dance band, was a term coined by bloggers living out their own isolationist fantasia of what it’s like to be a journalist; instead, applying that label is akin to collecting butterflies that never leave their cocoons. Grace/Confusion, Memory Tapes’ third full-length, sometimes engages spritely BPMs, but all six tracks here pack more introspection than Introspective: Few feature the computer-driven vamps, breaks, dropouts, climaxes, and resolutions of traditional EDM. Instead, these beat ballads employ emphatically human textural shifts, melodious guitar and synth solos, ornate bridges, multiple key changes, and other complications that emphasize Hawk the composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist, and even lyricist over Hawk the producer and mixer. He’s so not a DJ.
Take opener “Neighborhood Watch,” which fades up so slowly on cricket-y sound effects that nearly half a minute passes before anything happens. Then a Ry Cooder-esque twang introduces an ever-shifting landscape pulsing with the echoes of the Cure’s hair-teasing guitars, the Mellotron flutes of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Smashing Pumpkins’ high-drama power chords, that Moog solo on E.L.P.’s “Lucky Man,” and shoegaze on the fade. Hawk doesn’t hold back when he pays tribute: That might as well be Bernard Sumner himself plucking the solo on New Order nod “Thru the Field,” even if the final flourish careens into REO Speedwagon’s lane. Despite their length (ranging from nearly five to eight-and-a-half minutes), these songs have little repetition; instead, they’re crammed with riffs and rhythms in constant flux, and regardless of their density, Hawk no longer hides as a singer and writer: His anguished, reedy croon now emphatically addresses a far more specific “you.”
On “Sheila,” his target even gets a name, plus a personality much like his, an aloof outsider representing the other half of a relationship he claims never happened. Fed by mutual miscommunication, “This isn’t you and I” morphs into “This wasn’t you and I.” He apologizes, but never says goodbye. Instead, the track begins with electric piano chords like a Supertramp oldie, and although a muted thump soon kicks in, mutates, and changes style every few bars, the whole thing gets sadder and sadder until it explodes in rage, followed by flashes of freedom, regret, and seething pain. Although it’s the catchiest thing here, “Sheila” is packed so tightly that it takes multiple spins to process its many emotional and euphonious contours, yet once you get a handle on it, holy shit, it’s amazing. The next and final cut, “Follow Me,” feels like an alternate interpretation of the same events, possibly from her point of view: Is that who Hawk means to evoke with the wordless falsetto cry that takes repeated flight?
Maybe all of Grace/Confusion is about Sheila. Or maybe it wrestles with Hawk’s struggle to be present for her and ultimately himself. There’s a sustained weight and focus throughout that suggests the LP’s previously evasive creator is coming to terms with something substantial, like a spiritual absence — a vague whatever once emphasized with every hazy, reverb-drenched overdub — that defined not only his own identity, but chillwave itself. The reinvigorated results feel warm-blooded, definite, vulnerable, exposed. Just don’t try to dance to them.