With production assistance from label mate Richard Swift, this Santa Barbara quintet turns in an exciting debut.
On its self-titled debut, Gardens & Villa toss a hat into the crowded ring of new bands with an adoration for classic indie sounds. It goes down easy on first listen, a kind and gentle synth-pop, buoyed by Chris Lynch's virtuosic tenor and the album's steady sense of dynamics. With repeated plays the instrumentation proves to be nearly as elastic as Lynch's singing, and the surprises will keep you fishing for more. On "Sunday Morning", Gardens & Villa carve out a neo-psychedelia sound that isn't as gritty as the Fresh & Onlys nor as pop-friendly and sunny as Brown Recluse, but is as captivating as either.
The band trades the twitchy disco rhythms on "Star Fire Power" for tribal drums on "Neon Dove", while "Spacetime" goes from dance-floor sexy, with its propulsive drums, to silly, with a voice in the chorus that sounds like it should be narrating an alternate opening to Star Trek: The Next Generation. As he did on Damien Jurado's Saint Bartlett, producer and label mate Richard Swift helps Gardens & Villa to find coherence in multiple sounds, and the result is an exciting debut.
And that flute! Gardens & Villa make it work with the instrument serving as a kind of dancing partner for Lynch on "Sunday Morning" and especially "Orange Blossoms". My guess is that it would be annoying if Gardens & Villa broke out the flute more, but it's used in moderation and with restraint. In that way, it's like the rest of the album: the tempo never slacks off or picks up too much, the cymbals never crash too hard, the synth notes fall evenly and neatly. At its worst, the consistency threatens to turn Gardens & Villa into background music, and the steadiness would've been more of a detriment if the band hadn't integrated such diverse influences in the small range of highs and lows.
The true prize here is the vocals. Lynch's falsetto soars on tracks like "Orange Blossoms" and is charming enough to make otherwise comical lyrics seem tolerable ("Think of me like a swarm of bees buzzing around your knees / To pollinate means ecstasy"). However, Lynch sounds best when there's some heft to his voice. His growl on "Spacetime" has shades of Isaac Brock, and "Thorn Castles", a rare track with acoustic guitar, would almost pass for a guest spot from Ezra Koenig. The man has chops and composure to match.
The songwriting isn't as memorable, though occasionally the stories stick when Lynch reaches back into his memories ("When I was young, my momma said, 'Go down to the riverbed' / 'Gather blackberries in this basket'" on "Thorn Castles"), or has his feet planted in the present ("This is how God made us to live / On California, the cruise ship / With your wife and your kids" on "Cruise Ship"). The silly "Spacetime" aside, there's a faintly downhearted vibe to Gardens & Villa, but the catch is that you'll have to spend some time with the album to really feel it. Lynch and his band mates start out at arm's length until eventually, as the singer observes on "Carizzo Plain", "you and I are intertwined". There are enough moments on this debut to make you think that Gardens & Villa might offer an even more satisfying emotional connection on its next album, with or without the flute.