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Memoryhouse

Choir of Empty Rooms


[We Are Bandits; 2010]



By ; September 21, 2010 


Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

On Memoryhouse’s Tumblr, Evan Abeele recently wrote that Choir of Empty Rooms “needs to be differentiated from the formal memoryhouse canon, so the music portion is going to be tagged as ‘evan abeele.’” The idea is that the music is Evan’s while Denise Nouvion would contribute accompanying photographs. I haven’t seen the photos so maybe I’m missing out on part of the project here, but Choir of Empty Rooms comes across as just that—empty. I understand that Evan was trying to be informative on his Tumblr, but after hearing this collection of ambient somethings, I can’t help but feel that his talk of excluding Choir from the “formal memoryhouse canon” was more of a preemptive thing than anything else, like he knows that this is less developed than the duo’s previous releases but it doesn’t “really count” because it’s not “really Memoryhouse.”

Let me back up. The Years, released back in January, is a terrific little EP about ennui and love that promised great things from these hitherto unknown Canadians. It was ambient, it was pop, and it was endlessly listenable. Subsequent tracks like “Bonfire” and “Coma” only confirmed the duo’s ability to deftly take Evan’s neoclassical sensibilities and rework them into a decidedly modern pop context. These were no “verse-chorus-verse-chorus” cuts; these were meditative pieces that sounded as fragile as the broken hearts they described. Beautiful stuff.

And now comes Choir of Empty Rooms, which was supposed to be another tour-only release but, you know, how many people are seeing Memoryhouse live, right? So Evan and Denise put it on the Internet for all to enjoy. And I want to enjoy it. But again, despite the lush sonic arrangements and impressive lo-fi studio trickery (the opener of “Diving Lessons,” for instance, admirably conveys the song’s title), something feels missing here. Too many of these tracks feel empty.

The first three songs—“In Mothlight,” “Elena,” and “Nightswimming”—all kind of sound the same, almost twenty minutes’ worth of what sounds like a belabored opening to a Brian Eno tribute album. I keep waiting for something to happen, for the music to propel itself forward and give some sort of justification for the song titles, but it never happens. When R.E.M. wrote a song called “Nightswimming,” the result sounded lovely and eerie and maybe a little bit lonely—perfectly evocative of the activity of the song’s title. Here? Not so much. There’s a difference between “ambient” and “meandering,” and I’m disappointed that Memoryhouse doesn’t really seem to understand that.

Case in point: “Diving Lessons,” with its stark piano and succinct running time, feels like a low-key shot in the arm. It works because it encapsulates a sound that goes beyond the plodding, amelodic synth work of the previous tracks. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, it’s short-lived, and it’s not long before we’re back at the just-tuning-up nebula of “Everyone Hears The Voice,” which once again fails to distinguish itself from the rest of the material. Towards the end, we hear sounds of running water and children’s playground shouts, and I guess that’s the “voice” we’re supposed to “hear,” though without any prior context it just sounds unwarranted and silly.

This review sounds harsher than I intended it to. None of these songs are bad, really, and to the album’s credit, it ends with two solid ambient tracks. “Summer Sleep” starts off similarly to the Knife’s “Marble House” before veering into unexpectedly gorgeous piano-and-strings territory. Closer “Untitled,” meanwhiles, features a mellow bass line and—do my ears deceive me?–vocals! I don’t know what Denise Nouvion is saying, but between her vocals and the drums and the guitar work on display here, this final track is the most reminiscent of The Years. I mean that in the best possible way; it capitalizes on Evan’s classical training just as well as did, say, “Lately (Deuxième),” as though Evan rubbed Vaseline over a classic pop song and asked Denise to sing what she felt while he did so.

That said, Choir of Empty Rooms would have worked much better as an EP. At the very least, they could have just nixed the first three tracks; despite the loss, Memoryhouse would have ended up with a much fuller-sounding final product. As it stands, there’s a good EP’s worth of music in here—you’ve just got to cut through too many musical cobwebs to find it.


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