Small-Time Machine is the first proper album from Cassettes Won’t Listen, the alias of multi-instrumentalist Jason Drake, though the Brooklynite has released a slew of digital-only releases and remixes over the past few years. Of all these, only last year’s One Alternative EP, a set of covers that replays ‘90s classics from the likes of Liz Phair, Pavement, Sebadoh, and Blind Melon through a prism of synthy bleeps and farts, drum-machine gongs, and minimalist guitar etchings (available for free download on Drake’s website) is probably worth your time, even if its appeal treads a little close to nostalgia-embracing novelty. Dig also Drake’s remixes of Mr. Lif’s “Brothaz” and Aesop Rock’s “None Shall Pass,” which enter the same arena as Ratatat’s noted electro-jam treatment of radio rap.
Drake’s recent efforts have been consistently pleasant if less than breathtaking attempts at the one-man-band genre, but they offered few glimpses of what kind of songwriter he might be. Small-Time, a collection of seven emotive pop tunes crunched into an indie-electro aesthetic, answers that question. Cassettes Won’t Listen has more edge than the Postal Service, but not much. Drake’s wounded, Ben Gibbardish vocals run through couplets about broken relationships and teenage rebellion, while his accompaniment tries on different shades of melancholy, with mixed results.
Few of the songs on Small-Time manage to rise above the sum of their parts, usually some combination of rhythmic references to mid-‘90s trip-hop, unimaginative melodies, and atmospheric flourishes that are little more than distractions. On “Metronomes,” we have electric guitar strums flipped against bellowing organ lines and the requisite computerized drum kit—a morose mix that might work well beside an acerbic indie rapper like Aesop Rock, but which Drake is unable to take beyond being simply interesting production. Ditto “Large Radio,” which uses nicely spiraling gothic harpsichords to ill effect, underling the song’s wimpy chorus of “whoa, whoa, whoa, yeah, yeah, yeah.” “Paper Float” presents a rock riff and meandering piano loop alongside Drake’s uninspired vocals—again, savvy beat-making that results in only a mediocre pop song, a good description for most of the tracks on Small-Time.
Easily the disc’s best is “Two Kids,” where Drake finds a melody that actually sticks and dresses it up with an accompaniment that shifts between bare-bones techno and fuller, synthesized orchestration. On “Freeze and Explode,” a forgettable downtempo cut, Drake advises, “Try to pull the band-aid slow.” Too slow, I think. Better to bring the pain to both himself and his audience, and he might have had a better album. It’s obvious that Drake is straining toward amalgamating his already sophisticated talents as a producer with his inexpert songwriting chops. If the tunes ever catch up with the beats, Cassettes Won’t Listen will be something worth listening to.