New Jersey’s Ducktails has been making a name for itself (or, really, for himself — this is the project of Real Estate’s Matthew Monandile) in the chillwave scene for the last couple of years. An opening line like that will either make you cringe or make you reach for your Wayfarers and beach blanket. In other words, chillwave has made the transition from genre fad to, well, genre. Ever since Panda Bear’s solo work spawned the DNA that would lend itself to sunny stoned songs from Washed Out, Toro Y Moi, Neon Indian, and, yes, Real Estate (not to mention the dozens of less interesting copycats), songwriters have been cranking up the reverb and selling their extra guitars for sequencers and effects pedals.
Ducktails doesn’t do much to set itself apart from that scene, but not every band needs to be innovative. When his songs hit, Monandile can craft a lo-fi gem with the best of them. When they miss, they fade away into the background like — cough — a sunset on the beach, with not much of a stir. They do both in about equal measure on Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics. To his credit, Monandile attempts to change his formula a bit here by singing much more frequently than on past Ducktails releases. The presence of his vocals proves something of a mixed blessing. When a singer enters into the compositional scene, a song immediately jockeys for a more premier position in the attention span of its listener. That’s not to say that instrumentals can’t do the same thing, just that a human voice, by definition, calls attention to itself when we hear it.
It goes a long way to say, then, that the songs on Arcade Dynamics are often at their best when they allow themselves to settle pleasantly into the background, surviving on vibe rather than musical chops. It’s interesting that Monandile would explicitly ask his audience to study the dynamics of this record, since most of the songs have anything but a sense of movement. Again, that’s not necessarily a complaint. “Killin the Vibe” moves from verse to chorus with a breezy efficiency, hardly shaking the boat at all in the process, and it’s a wonderfully cheerful piece of pop songcraft. Similarly, “Arcade Shift”, “In the Swing” and “Little Window” — all instrumentals — tap right into your dopamine receptors without seeming to try that hard in doing so.
“Porch Projector” may be the Arcade Dynamics’s key. At once at outlier (its 10-minute running time is far-and-beyond the longest on the album) and an anchor (its spaced-out instrumentation serves as the palate for much of the songwriting here), it works best when you shut your eyes and let it set a certain tone. It’s difficult to dislike Arcade Dynamics, maybe even impossible, given that it’s so relentlessly inoffensive. On the other hand, it’s not an album likely to engender much passion, either. Whatever the case, if you need another soundtrack for a summer afternoon, you could do worse.