From Joni Mitchell to Kanye West, lots of the glamour and romance of the single person meticulously crafting a studio (or bedroom) album lies in what that person’s personality and eccentricities might bring to the table, or what parts of their personality might come through in what’s typically very meticulously crafted music. Even when the resulting output isn’t the best, the right cult of personality can turn what would otherwise be a cruddy album into an interesting relic. (Hence the entirely separate pantheons of “good bad” records by the likes of The Rolling Stones and Robert Pollard.)
On Player Piano, though, Memory Tapes (also known as Davye Hawk) has gone to what seems like awfully great lengths to prevent any personal cracks from showing in the sheen of his bland one-man synthpop, instead opting for the carnival-ride versions of the emotions and ideas typically covered in the genre. Normally, this quality is good for a vague universal-ness that can lead to success, but Player Piano plays its emotions so close to the chest that, instead of reminding us of a breakup or a kiss, it evokes the universal quality of driving to work or waiting in line at Subway.
Hawk’s intent isn’t the problem — this world is always in need of good pop music. The problem is the lack of hooks, atmospherics and soul. For all that’s made of Hawk’s prior studio successes, many of the arrangements and tones on Player Piano evoke a half-done latter-day Of Montreal record at best (“Trance Sisters”) and the soundtrack to a second-rate kids’ movie at worst (“Today Is Our Life,” “Sunhits”).
A primary difference between a solo artist and a collaborative band is that, with a solo artist, very little in the songwriting and recording processes is left up to coincidence or the sum of its parts. With that level of control in mind, it’s reasonable to ask an artist like Hawk to go one way or the other: Either completely be yourself, let your esoteric side hang out, and own any imperfections that result, (the domain of, say, Brian Eno, all the way down to Her Space Holiday) or write something general enough that most of us can see a little of ourselves in it (Paul McCartney, David Feck). If there are listeners out there to whom John Maus, James Blake, or Of Montreal are too risky, Player Piano comes highly recommended. The guitar lead in “Sunhits” is pretty catchy, after all, even if it seems tailor-made for the background of the next Shrek movie.