It’s increasingly rare that a band will have stumbled across a well-defined unique aesthetic upon the first release that they send forth to the expanses of the internet. Memoryhouse’s 2010 EP, The Years, was one of these rare releases that established its niche from the very beginning. Though the duo, composed of Evan Abeele and Denise Nouvion, drew heavy (if unwarranted) comparisons to much of the burgeoning chillwave scene, and though they dealt heavily in the reverb-drenched wispy vocals that were so in vogue at the time, The Years represents an effort more cinematic in scope than many of the other mushy bedroom pop artists of the time. On the strength of the much buzzed about single, “Lately (Deuxième),” the band generated quite a bit of deserved acclaim for the hazy strains contained within the EP. Drawing equally on ambient soundscapes (which Abeele later explored on a solo release), sample-based electronic music, and the reverb-as-songwriting-tool approach that many bands of the period adopted.
It feels weird to refer to 2010 as a time so far removed from the present, but Memoryhouse was a band so of that moment that it seems necessary to note the distinct change in musical climate. After the acclaim brought on by The Years and the unique sound that it presented despite being firmly entrenched in the fads of the time, Abeele and Nouvion signed to Sub Pop and made the curious decision of following up their debut with, well, The Years EP. Yes, their next release was a barely expanded version of their debut, more than a year after its first incarnation. This reissue became notable only because of the new version of “Lately” that it presented. Though the dreaminess was still present, the song was stripped of it’s Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind sample and replaced with a piano and strings. Viewing this choice from the outside, it seemed an issue of simply not being able to clear the sample, but hindsight providing as clear a look as it does, this was merely the first step in shirking their early aesthetic.
As much as it seemed worrying that Memoryhouse were becoming more reliant on organic instruments rather than sticking with the tones that made them their name, if nothing else, this new version “Lately” showcased the songcraft above the production for the first time in their young careers, a move mirrored here on their debut full length The Slideshow Effect. The reverb that so permeated The Years‘ first incarnation is for the most part absent from this new effort — at least in the sense that it isn’t used as a be-all-and-end-all in the same way that it was in the past. In the past, the opener “Little Expressionless Animals” might have been coated in swaths of reverb, and even here Nouvion’s wordless melodies in the background feature quite a liberal amount of the effect, but the vocals are pulled to the forefront amidst a more organic arrangement than previously seen from the band. Its an unexpected change-up for a band that’s early work focused so heavily on obscuring its lyrics and vocal melodies, but one that ultimately works in the favor of the band.
It’s a change up that continues throughout the tracks that follow. Gone is the reverb, gone are the hazy synth sounds. Instead we are presented with the wiry guitar riffs of “The Kids Were Wrong” or the slide guitar that permeates “Bonfire,” amongst others. What The Slideshow Effect becomes as a result of this lifted veil is a relatively straightforward indie pop record that falls more in line with a Camera Obscura or a Belle and Sebastian than the unique sound they developed with previous releases. Whether this is for better or for worse seems to me a matter of preference. The songwriting, even on weaker tracks like “Kinds Of Light,” far eclipses anything from The Years, with an exception maybe in the original version of “Lately,” but something intangible is lost in this transition to a more straightforward sound. Though Abeele and Nouvion are able to showcase their talents in a new way, and you can’t fault them for artist growth, particularly in growth that promotes better songwriting, one can’t help but pine for the sound of The Years in some way.
It’d be a stretch to call this album disappointing — it’s undeniable that something like “Punctum,” a track still reliant on the sort of nostalgia that was found throughout The Years, is both technically superior to and more emotionally resonant than most of their early material. It’s probably an unfair critical gripe to wish that they would have further explored the sounds of The Years, but despite the leaps and bounds that this effort makes songwriting wise, it just feels less unique than it did before. The most talented artists are able to combine outstanding songcraft and a unique rewarding atmosphere, but with The Slideshow Effect it seems that Memoryhouse has traded one of these characteristics for another.