Deconstructing: Memory Tapes And Life Beyond Chillwave
How does the word “chillwave” make you feel in the waning weeks of 2012? If it doesn’t make you say “huh?” it probably makes you say “ugh.” We all have a different tolerance for contrived trend genres — for some, the gag reflex is triggered the moment a buzzword is coined; others got so wasted on freak-folk that the hangover caused them to sleep through shitgaze entirely — but no matter how long we put up with these forced associations, they all expire eventually. Chris Weingarten’s 2009 Village Voice piece “The Decade In Genre Hype” is a handy guide: glitch, electroclash, blog house, and more, all filed away on the USB hard drive of history.
So it went with this alleged movement: Summer 2009 saw a bumper crop of singles evoking grainy VHS recordings of childhood beach vacations, typically the product of one-man operations bathing weak-throated vocals in soft-focus keyboard wash. Rob Harvilla cleverly dubbed She & Him “Instagram folk” in a 2011 review, but had the photo app been around at the dawn of chillwave, its nostalgia-driven filters would have made fine shorthand for this sound, too. Instead, the crowdsourced Goldilocks game of critical shorthand gave us “glo-fi” (too corny) and “hypnagogic pop” (too clumsy) and finally “chillwave” (just right). We can argue about when this particular term lost its currency, but when Hipster Runoff hasn’t tagged a single post with it all year, you can rest assured it’s good and dead.
Not dead, however, are the careers of most of the bands that ended up lumped together under the chillwave beach umbrella. Neon Indian, Washed Out, Toro Y Moi, Small Black — they might not be at the forefront of the critical conversation, but all of them have managed to avoid becoming relics. Now comes a third Memory Tapes album, Grace/Confusion, released not into the cold vacuum of post-hype obscurity but with an MTV Hive interview and widespread embeds. Dayve Hawk is no longer the beneficiary of a Grimes- or Purity Ring-level media orgy, but he also hasn’t yet tumbled off the steep cliff to irrelevance. The term “chillwave” is kind of gross at this point, yet the bands that we tend to think of as chillwave are still finding ways to stay fresh. Hawk and his peers seem to be outlasting the buzzword that helped his career take flight, which is impressive because that sort of flapping usually turns out to be albatross wings.
Other than the obvious desire to have your music evaluated on its own merits, this is why most bands vehemently deny being part of a movement, particularly one with a goofy, commodifiable name. (Be very suspicious of bands that embrace this kind of branding, and actively shun the ones that campaign for it.) Getting latched to a fad genre has proven to be one of music’s deadliest double-edged swords. There is, of course, a fleeting but lucrative upside: For a brief window of time, you enjoy the effusive praise of many sheep’s pens full of critics; you get to feel like a Beatle at SXSW; your tours sell out; you command heftier guarantees; you see the world; you get to make your second album in a fancy studio (or at least with a fancier laptop). Then the biters start piling on, a subgenre gets overexposed, the media beats a buzzword to death, the early-adopters go searching for something fresher, and all the attention goes away faster than you can say “Fuck the pain away.” Unless you’ve parlayed this magic moment into the kind of legitimate rock stardom that’s impervious to cultural currents (see: Jack White), your band usually becomes a niche concern again, if that.
Just ask Times New Viking. The Ohio lo-fi trio never set out to be part of a movement, and certainly not one with a joke name like shitgaze. They just carried the torch for the music they grew up on, captured lightning in a bottle, became a cause célèbre among influential people, got placed on a pedestal as leaders of a new generation of lo-fi, enjoyed the chance to release records on labels close to their hearts, tolerated the likes of NME and MTV with a mix of amusement and bewilderment, gladly opened for some of their favorite bands of all time, then watched helplessly as the hype storm subsided. When I interviewed them for Columbus Alive last year upon the release of Dancer Equired, they couldn’t help but be cynical about how quickly the crowds on tour dwindled back to a few zealots from the Terminal Boredom message board after their time as the next big thing ran out. It wasn’t a sob story — they seemed grateful to be playing for people who genuinely appreciated their music, if perplexed about how to make a living that way.
You could argue what happened with TNV was as much about diminishing returns as a fickle hype cycle. Their early records exude a breathless enthusiasm that seemed bled dry by the time Dancer Equired came out. You could just as easily make a case that a media feeding frenzy is exactly what bled them dry. Being perceived as part of a movement probably helped TNV get more attention than they would have otherwise; on the other hand, had they not been lumped in with loads of lesser peers, maybe the casual fan wouldn’t have become exhausted with their aesthetic and abandoned them so fast. It’s a tricky chicken-egg situation, and I’m not sure there’s an easy way out — but there are definitely ways out, ways to keep listeners interested in your music for the long term. I know this because some bands pull it off. This usually means evolving rather than calcifying your sound into a living museum exhibit. (For freak-folk mascot Devendra Banhart, who just announced a new album Monday, it apparently involves cutting your hair and putting on a clean shirt. And it worked! Maybe it shouldn’t be this way, but his new look makes me curious about his new sound in a way I wouldn’t have been otherwise.)
Chillwave seemed like a prime candidate to get stuck in time. When it became the buzz genre of the moment, I enjoyed remarkable singles like “Deadbeat Summer” and “Blessa” and “Feel It All Around,” but I could have sworn these songs would be nothing more than the high points of some future retrospective comp, standard bearers for a gimmicky aesthetic that would remain firmly entrenched in the recession era that birthed it. (More like Washed Up, amirite?) More than three years later, that grainy synth-pop sound is becoming a thing of the past, but its architects haven’t been content to stay there with it. Chillwave’s unwitting peers have survived by finding ways to change and grow, particularly apart from each other. Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo embraced his destiny as synth-pop’s Elvis Presley and took a more visceral direction on Era Extraña, while Washed Out’s Ernest Greene buried subtly beautiful songs under even denser textures on Within and Without. Small Black released a surprisingly delightful mixtape replete with Heems features, one that has my interest piqued for their next Jagjaguwar LP. Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundick delved into disco and funk on Underneath the Pine; his upcoming third album Anything In Return drives that sound into a darker, danker space somewhere between Caribou’s liquid dance opus Swim and the moody sonic palette of Drake’s Take Care.
Which brings us to Memory Tapes, whose glorious mess of a third record ranges from interesting to awesome, often within the course of a single sprawling song. Grace/Confusion is not anything close to a perfect record, but it’s an exciting record, one that finds Hawk wildly throwing ideas around without compromising his voice. Opener “Neighborhood Watch” builds from blissed-out ephemera in a Yo La Tengo vein to orchestra-tinged laptop pop to a humongous climax that bridges the gap between The Fragile and Yessongs. “Sheila” goes full-on Steely Dan, then full-on steely dance. “Let Me Be” screeches and curdles, while “Thru The Field” glimmers and grooves. These sorts of satisfying steps forward aren’t a surprise coming from Hawk; his last album, 2011’s Player Piano, made the time-honored leap from dreamy lo-fi to crystalline clarity, which was either a saner answer to of Montreal or the greatest Mannheim Steamroller album of all time. He promises his next album will be something else entirely, and at this point it’s easy to believe him. The last song on Grace/Confusion is called “Follow Me,” and that seems like an exciting proposition at this point.
Proclaiming these artists’ enduring power might be a bit premature considering the underground climate hasn’t fully moved beyond retro keyboard music. “Chillwave” as a term is passé, and its early forms have been discarded, but its influence remains. You can still, um, feel it all around. Dreamy, keyboard-driven music is still very much a “thing” right now, one that happens to be spilling out in all sorts of new directions. (One of this year’s popular storylines was an alleged resurgence of guitar-driven indie rock, but maybe that’s the passing fad?) I’m still curious about how projects like Memory Tapes will fare when (if?) foggy-lens synth sounds cycle completely out of style, but so far I’ve been heartened — and more importantly, entertained — by their stabs at longevity.