When New Jersey’s reclusive electronic songsmith, Dayve Hawke, set out to release his third album under the Memory Tapes monicker, he had some expectations to live up to. Among thriving peers Neon Indian, Washed Out, and Millionyoung (to name a few), Hawke’s debut ’09 LP, Seek Magic, established him as a force to be reckoned with among the prominent electronic sub-genre, Chillwave. But after the disappointing release of 2011’s LP, Player Piano (which applied some liberal twists to the trajectory of the Chillwave genre), some had begun to question the direction of Hawke’s project. So I have to ask then– with the release of Memory Tapes’ most recent LP, Grace/Confusion, did you honestly expect a living breathing artist with an emphasis on production and an obvious desire to branch out, to simply go back in time and give you the traditional thrills of a comfortable yet un-challenging Chillwave album? Genre purists are likely to either hail Grace/Confusion as a step toward the next new thing, or one more step backward in a series of albums that disappoint. In either case, Memory Tapes seems to have missed the mark in Grace/Confusions implementation, but perhaps the more interesting question here, is if you believe in the vision Hawke seems to be working toward.
In it’s sum, Grace/Confusion is a densely layered, synth-ladden soundscape, reverberating with chintzy effects, sprawling falsetto vocals, and ambient lo-fi backdrops among indulgent 80’s dance-pop hooks, watery traces of disco, bits of shoegaze, and even some hard-edged moments of depeche-inspired rock-tronica. As confusing as all this sounds, the album manages to satisfy moments of grace, as promised, but the messiness of the arrangements don’t seem to ever come clean enough to offer those redeeming moments of clarity that the Chillwave genre traditionally builds towards. Oddly enough, Dayve Hawke seems to be well aware of his artistic decisions in Grace/Confusion, which are what cause me to not simply dismiss this album as a valiant pioneering attempt, but an ultimate failure.
When asked about the upcoming release of Grace/Confusion, Hawke was quoted as saying, “At the time I made this record, I felt like a mess… I wanted the record to seem like a mess. I didn’t want three-minute singles; that didn’t seem appropriate… “ Apparently, this is why the album is surmised of a surprisingly transient sound encompassed within only six tracks.
The first half of the album, most likely to conjure a sense of grace, opens up with “Neighborhood Watch,” an easy breezy float through an expansive soundscape of whimsically bent guitar notes, sleepy vocals, and electro-pop fantasia. As with much of the songs, the pop-build up eventually gives way to dirtier moments of tonal aggression, that like the initial build up, become lost in a spaceless realm of transition. “Thru the Field” maintains a passive but insistent 80’s pop danceability reminiscent of a brat-pack reunion at a high school prom; eventual transitions into prominent guitar hooks overcome the initial wash of synth, and let listeners down gracefully for a pleasant end of the night kiss at the doorstep. “Safety,” running nearly 8 minutes long, sets an aggressive pace with heavy layers of textured percussion among recycled synth hooks, and abundant sound effects.
The second half of the album, beginning with “Let Me Be,” introduces a garish, hard-edged handling of effects that mirrors more of the confusion half of the album. Eerie vocals limp moodily through contorted waves of reverb, before dropping out for an eery treatment of tribally inspired steel drum. Its fun, it’s dark, but I can’t say it feels in place among the fuzzy feel of deja vu that Grace/Confusion is reminiscent of. “Sheila,” the albums unsuspecting single, takes a step back from this approach and introduces a forlorn narrative about a girl that got away. “Sheila,” is arguably the least compelling song on the album, offering a very guarded arrangement in comparison to the rest of Grace/Confusion. “Follow Me” closes the album out with a meandering synth line and a playful handful of effects to keep the vocal hook rolling smoothly. As seems to be the established formula in Grace/Confusion, arrangements spend a moment or two in place before building upward, into starry wash of reverberated harmony that only allude to the original progression.
In the end, Grace/Confusion is a wildly inventive album that might well be the foundation of an entirely new sound, one far more complex and compelling then Chillwave. But aside from the openly cluttered arrangements the album offers, Grace/Confusion is introverted, anti-social, and at times, a bit weighed down in the density of its arrangements, and the unforgivingly anxious emotional tone. Give this one a listen in your car, bedroom, or home, but by no means should anyone be forced to try and dance to it. Just sayin’…