, November 13th, 2009 11:19
It's uncanny, but every time I hear 'Swimming Field,' the opening track on this excellent album, it reminds me of one of the first songs I ever wrote and recorded myself, in my first amateur band while still at school. The specific resemblance - the simple, tremulous, picked guitar riff, shifting from F to G, the appealingly club-footed drum machine - is a coincidence, of course. But the general sense of Proustian nostalgia - and I also hear the shimmering radiance of the Cocteau Twins, the heat-haze dance-pop of Saint Etienne - is something I imagine will work for almost everyone, evoking different, half-remembered songs from their past; ones they heard, ones they wrote, or ones they maybe just imagined.
Memory Tapes: was ever an act more fittingly named? Shifts of rhythm and melody tweak deep-rooted emotional triggers, and half-recognised analogue ghosts haunt the spaces in-between. A song like 'Bicycle' seems so of-the-moment and yet so unbearably nostalgic that before you've even finished listening to it for the first time, you've loaded it down with sentimental associations and unreachable desires. It's a neat trick, alright: a song to make you look back on 2009 with a bittersweet sigh before the year is even out, as it moves from twinkling ambience to beaty grooves, to a vocal refrain that hits just the right note of off-key, minor-chord happy-sadness, to a closing coda of choral vocals and plangent New Order/Cure referencing guitars.
'Green Knight' is a piece of lo-slung, slow-burning funk that wanders down similar melodic paths to the Cure's 'A Forest,' utilising a sneaker squeak / basketball bounce rhythm sample alongside lonely piano notes and synth sounds that suggest elements of mid-eighties Tangerine Dream, the incidental music to a John Hughes teen movie, or even a John Carpenter horror score in its dark, autumnal beauty. The electronic gamelan rhythms of 'Pink Stones' conjure the mysterious hi-tech jungle kingdom of Wakanda, ruled over by Marvel Comics' Black Panther, while 'Stop Talking' slides slickly into place like a loose-limbed Daft Punk, or like a disco scene from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, with Twiki the robot cutting a move (much to the bemusement of Buck, a red-blooded redneck type who probably had a 'disco sucks' badge all along).
There are flaws, admittedly: both 'Stop Talking' and 'Graphics' meander on too long at nearly seven minutes a piece, so that the middle section of this forty-minute CD feels padded out with what amounts to American Apparel store muzak: accomplished and pleasantly narcotic, but a tad too soporific and glossily empty, sucking you down into its own aural K-hole. You just know, too, that the fuzzy 'Plain Material' is going to have TV advertising agencies wetting themselves over its combination of lo-fi 90s indie-rock, electro beats and a scoured, bleached out chorus, just right for some upbeat, utopian campaign that talks about "bringing people together" with phones or toasters or somesuch. That's the worry: Memory Tapes are so good at their ambiguous, emotionally manipulative trade that their music could sell you just about anything. Their hypnogogic, digital dream pop - part LCD Soundsystem, part Ariel Pink - is perfectly represented by the cover art, a blurred oil painting of reflections in a lake, all out of focus and shimmering in the haze. This could be Manchurian Candidate music, a subtly disorienting, shimmering psychedelia acting as a purpose-built vehicle for subliminal messages of all kinds.
But it's hard to be cynical when Seek Magic washes over you with such streamlined, perfect grace. Like the still waters on the sleeve, it's a gorgeous thing; but what lies beneath the perfect surface remains unknown. For now, just hug this album to your face like a lover's faintly-perfumed sweater, and breathe deep.