You can’t say he didn’t warn you. When Berliner René Margraff chose a name for his solo project, and later his debut album, he certainly wasn’t misleading; the references to schlafen are ample indication that Margraff was fully aware Sleeping Pills isn’t going to be 2009’s party record. Making liberal use of gentle melody over washes of accumulated tones and drifting drones, this debut is beautiful in both seductive and sedative ways.
Despite some differences in composition, Sleeping Pills’ nine tracks exhibit most of the same traits. A guitar, often with echo, plucks out a simple, plaintive melody over an ambient background, usually either field recording or washes of synthesizer. Margraff usually opts for a crisper, clearer sound on top, with the tonal cushion below cracked, pockmarked, or rough. “Eleven” foils the formula a bit, to nice effect, dissolving the border between foreground and back-, and adding a sliver of ambiguity to the mix. The hierarchy that defines the album, however, with the guitar plainly up front, has a tendency to anchor the music in an undesirable way, bringing what could be a more moving abstract sound back to Earth.
Were Margraff in possession of a time machine, he might be in luck. Music comes with no expiration date, and a style isn’t limited to a single era, but Sleeping Pills feels far too familiar to make much of a splash. In any style well established in the cultural psyche, subsequent efforts within the same will need to be increasingly remarkable to make an impression. Just as three decades of repetition have left once fearsome punk antics snooze-worthy to most, Pillowdriver’s dreamy debut, attractive as it can be, simply doesn’t demand attention in any significant way. Margraff has made some alluring music, but its potential to inspire emotion isn’t often fulfilled.