In the abstract, taking a once bare-bones bedroom-recorded recording project to the next level by adding richer, fuller instrumentation makes perfect sense. It does not, however, always work out in a way that best benefits the artist’s material. Badly Drawn Boy is one such cautionary tale, whose scruffy charm on debut The Hour of Bewilderbeast became diluted in alternative-lite schmaltz with subsequent releases. And when hip-hop sound collagist RJD2 tried his hand at making a full-band pop album with The Third Hand, the end result lacked the spark and inspiration of his instrumental hip-hop work, instead coming out like a slightly less cheesy Jamiroquai.
For Davye Hawk, these pitfalls seem largely avoidable, given his history of both recording solo new wave disco as Memory Tapes and having fronted indie rock outfit Hail Social. On Hawk’s second Memory Tapes full-length and first for Carpark, Player Piano, Hawk fleshes out his synth-based compositions with full-band arrangements, amplifying the kind of warm-yet-danceable style he perfected on 2009’s Seek Magic. Yet despite the more concerted effort to create something bigger and more polished, the differences between this album and its predecessor are pretty subtle. Synths still dominate, Hawk still immerses his vocals in reverb and other effects, and the songwriting still more or less evokes the kind of long-lost college rock/new wave cassette for which Memory Tapes’ moniker seemed so apt.
The most noticeable difference between Player Piano and Seek Magic lies primarily in the drums. Though Memory Tapes’ groovy drum machine beats of yore were by no means a flaw, they’ve mostly been sacrificed here in the name of trap set beats that carry just a little more pop, as evident in the dreamy “Wait in the Dark.” Yet Memory Tapes evolves into something much closer to a rock band with “Today Is Our Life,” an alt-rocker that layers Joshua Tree-style ambience and earnestness with disco propulsion, and even features a pretty ripping guitar solo. And “Sunhits,” with its infectious guitar riffs and pulsing synth bassline, has radio hit written all over it. Yet, despite Hawk’s admirable effort in beefing up his compositions with more live instrumentation, the album’s greatest successes are those that sound the most homemade and intimate, like the morosely beautiful “Offers” and the spare, ethereal “Yes I Know,” each of which carries with it that much more emotional weight, for not being overpowered by larger arrangements.
Player Piano doesn’t mark a significant change from the alluring synth-pop ditties on Seek Magic, but some of that album’s fuzzy charm has been swapped for a bigger sound. Sometimes it works wonderfully, at other times less so, but it’s a transition worth making in the name of growth, even if he hasn’t quite hit the sweet spot. Oddly, Hawk says his next album will consist of space rock and Sabbath-style riffs, so this may be the last set of synth-pop we hear from the New Jersey artist for a while. And though the sheen may not seem quite as bright this time around, Player Piano still offers a sound worth savoring.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.