One Trick Pony?
It’s strange how one’s opinion can change in the space of a few months. In September of last year, I was lauding the sort-of debut EP on Sub Pop by the Toronto-area dream pop duo Memoryhouse called The Years, and I say sort-of because it was really a cleaned-up re-release of an EP that had been previously released a year earlier – a move that got the group knocked critically in another online music publication for essentially delivering the same product, just with the lo-fi aesthetic removed. Well, just five months later, Memoryhouse – containing the classical-music trained Evan Abeele and multimedia professional and singer Denise Nouvion – have issued their first full-length LP, The Slideshow Effect, and the only mood I initially conjured up after listening to it was one of mild indifference. It’s hard to say why I was largely unmoved by The Slideshow Effect. The duo pushes forward their lush sound by adding washes of countrified pedal steel guitar here and there, and there’s certainly some charming stuff to be found on the album. It’s a record that I wanted to like, but, even after repeat listens, can only do so half-heartedly.
I suppose it comes down to the fact that The Years EP was only five songs long, and its ultimate effect was one of leaving you wanting more. The Slideshow Effect, on the other hand, runs double that length, and there aren’t very many spaces for the group to hide behind. That means that Memoryhouse is the kind of band that is best enjoyed in bite-sized chunks rather than through a full-course meal. Ultimately, The Slideshow Effect is 10 songs of the same glacially-paced quasi-shoegazer pop, one that gets a bit wearing as one gets deeper and deeper into it. As well, with The Slideshow Effect you get the impression that the group is a little too arty in intention for their own good, leading one to question their ability to stretch out, have a little fun and not be quite so pretentious and serious.
The album’s opening is a little problematic. “Little Expressionless Animals” literally picks up where The Years left off with little room for any dissonance or change. Featuring a gently shuffling beat and cool background “ahhh’s” from Nouvion, the song is essentially Broken Social Scene-style bedroom pop with the artistic flourish of a cello here and there. You want to feel something in this song, but it leaves behind a trace that seems flat and listless. You’ve heard this from Memoryhouse in the past, generally done better. The faster-paced follow-up “The Kids Were Wrong” doesn’t fare much better. Featuring a stuttering drum machine and loopy guitars borrowed from the Kevin Drew songbook, the song feels overly Canadian indie-rock familiar. One keeps expecting Leslie Feist or Emily Haines to pop in and make an appearance, giving it a “been there, done that” kind of overall vibe.
It’s not until you get to the third song “All Our Wonder” that things generally begin to take shape and improve. The song starts out with a gently played music-box set of vibes, and feels tiny and fragile once Nouvion, yet again, adds here “ahhh’s” as a flourish. This is where the country-influence side of Memoryhouse’s sound comes to the fore, with well-positioned pedal steel guitars floating gently on the melody, and one starts to lean into the music more, feeling compelled by the sound. Then Nouvion sings in the chorus that “we’re not the lucky ones”, which is a bit distracting when you realize that Drew actually had a song called “The Lucky Ones” on his solo record – something that seems to be a bit of borrowed feeling. “Punctum” is a bit better, a lilting bit of country soul with a memorable lick of a chorus, though, it, too, is a little reminiscent of BSS’s “Backyards” to some degree.
There is also quite a bit of repetition on the record, particularly in closing song “Old Haunts”, which trots out the line “placed an heirloom to forget”, referencing the song “Heirloom” only five tracks earlier. “I’ll be right here by your side,” sings Nouvion on “The Kids Were Wrong”, and she replicates the sentiment on “Bonfire” when she coos, “Let’s get cold together”. “We’re not alone,” Nouvion then insists on “Pale Blue”. “OK,” I want to say, “I get it.” What’s more, given the singer’s background as a photographer and filmmaker, the imagery of pictures kind of floats up to the surface a few times too many. “It’s not enough to live your past through photographs, uncovered,” goes the lyric to “Punctum”, while “Bonfire” offers, “I left your photo in this pool”. Additionally, the cinematic use of swimming or being doused in water just seems to be too overbearing: “Just don’t drown in the flood” goes “Heirloom”. Meanwhile, the next song “Bonfire” offers, “the moon is out and it’s much too cold to swim.” “Pull me under ... / lights on water” is the imagery used on “Pale Blue”. “Walk With Me” even trots out, “we gave ourselves to the current.” And then “our bodies lie on the water” equals “Kinds of Light”. Do you feel that someone is beating your head over and over again with a stick? I sure do. Usually, the use of such thematic motifs might be an attempt to build consistency in one’s sound, but, here, they feel distracting and overused, and it puts one at a distance from the music. “When will we know it’s enough?” asks Nouvion on “Old Haunts”. Good question. Maybe they need someone, an editor, on the outside to show them the way.
That all said and done, The Slideshow Effect isn’t completely a wash-out. Even though its sound is reminiscent of Broken Social Scene meets Beach House, it’s easy to lie back and get caught up in the gussed-up indie pop beauty of some of the song structures. Particularly, “Walk With Me” is a song that lights up the album with its stately organ and chillwave vibe. There’s a soft gauze to the album as a whole that is endearing in an eating-cotton-candy kind of way. While there is certainly a sense of the familiar, The Slideshow Effect makes up for it through a kind of smitten charm, thanks to Nouvion’s soft ethereal vocals. However, it may take a few listens to come to that conclusion, and, compared to their “debut” EP, The Slideshow Effect isn’t nearly as special as it seems to think it is. Maybe The Years EP, the Sub Pop version at least, was so engaging because the duo had really worked and reworked the songs to a point where they felt original and a breath of fresh air. The Slideshow Effect, on the other hand, feels rushed and unfinished in some respects. At full length, the holes in Memoryhouse’s indie sound appear in greater clarity. In all, this is an album that you might want to really like, but ultimately you’ll probably feel a bit cold and aloof at the general lack of variance in the band’s sound. With The Slideshow Effect, and its half-charm and half-flaws, you really have to wonder if Memoryhouse, alas, might be little more than a one-trick pony.
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