One thing that has never made sense to me and that has regularly instigated irritation deep in my heart is the description of Kraftwerk as “cold” and “inhuman”. I remember very well the first time I popped Trans-Europe Express into the CD player of my car when I was 18 years old and hearing that magnificent, glowingly warm synth line from the anthemic “Europe Endless” come chugging out of my speakers. Kraftwerk are clearly interested in blurring the boundaries between humanity and technology, but they never lost sight of the first part of that equation. Their music has always felt sunny, tantalizing, and deeply human to me. The delicious, squelching synth found throughout Memory Tapes’ new record Grace/Confusion works to similar effect. It radiates outward like a campfire, growing more spacious and captivating with every track. At times, the lovely synth lines that give Grace/Confusion its gratifying texture soar and spiral though your ears in the high end of the tone spectrum, at others they stoop and undulate deep in the bass basement, but they retain a sense of inviting fervency throughout. Memory Tapes remind us that synths and electronic music do not need to sound icy and mechanical. They can feel like Christmas lights at nighttime.
Memory Tapes have certainly nailed a very compelling sound here, but they have done more than that; this record is filled with wonderfully crafted songs as well. Grace/Confusion’s first two tracks “Neighborhood Watch” and “Thru the Field” marry late period Cocteau Twins with the synthy charm of Trans-Europe Express era Kraftwerk, and the very finest moments of New Order. The latter of these two first tracks is where Grace/Confusion really takes off; clap-along beats drive one of the most enjoyable, catchy synth lines that I have heard in ages. Dayve Hawk, who is apparently Memory Tapes’ sole member, offers high, rather asexual vocals that work beautifully with the music, never overshadowing or distracting.
The formidable Mr. Hawk has clearly been listening a great deal to the Danish prog-pop masters Mew lately. On the one hand, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with this rather heavy influence. I love Mew and they are one of the most underrated bands working today. On the other hand, the influence seems almost too obvious at times, particularly when it comes to the vocals. Grace/Confusion doesn’t exhibit the off-kilter proggyness of Mew’s most recent material, following more in the footsteps of their 2003 classic Frengers, but the unambiguous worship here is sometimes a little bit too much. However, this is a minor quibble really. Memory Tapes have dropped in our laps one of the catchiest and most enjoyable electro-pop records of the year and I am complaining that they sound too much like one of my favorite bands?
Music that is this steeped in dance pop and European disco from the 1970s and ‘80s can too easily come off as tongue-in-cheek parody, especially when dispensed by a guy from New Jersey, but Grace/Confusion never feels that way. These are tracks that will sound equally appropriate on your headphones while waiting for the bus as they will on a dance floor. They do not debase their influences to ironic reference points. They take the things about Italo disco and synth pop that I love and imbibe them with genuine humanity and masterful songwriting. Grace/Confusion hits me in many of my most sensitive sweet spots, those parts of my musical inclinations that love juicy, romantic synths, slathered on as thick and as they can be, married to brain-boiling pop hooks that refuse to exit your memory. I suspect that I will not be the only one who feels this way about Grace/Confusion and I just bet that it will be rubbing a lot of people the right way.
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