The chillwave project outgrows its lo-fi meanderings and becomes a diligent student of '70s soft rock.
The transition from rudimentary bedroom project to full-blown artiste-in-a-studio endeavor is a challenge that many an upwardly mobile lo-fi auteur has had to come to terms with. As much as one person playing every instrument onto a four-track tape machine or laptop can be a matter of financial and situational practicality, it's also as often an aesthetic decision. The thin, hazy mist commonly associated with cheapo recording can obscure and muddle sounds in attractive ways given the proper circumstances, and for denizens of indiedom it can add instant character to even the most amateurish creation. Not every act has much to stand upon once such an accommodating veneer is stripped away.
For those that thought 2011's Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics was a drastic makeover for Matt Mondanile's formerly rinky-dink chillwave endeavor, The Flower Lane is going to be even more of a shock. On this album, Ducktails have taken what must have been a fairly generous studio budget from new label Domino and used it to fund their metamorphosis into an astonishingly bang-on facsimile of a 1970s soft rock act. The summery vibe that Ducktails has always radiated is easily transplanted to a methodically-produced realm where easy-going grooves, supple and elastic basslines, and jazzy harmonies are common features. The result is music that unequivocally earns that -- due to the Internet comedy series Yacht Rock -- oft-maligned descriptor "smooth". There's even a goddamn saxophone solo during the eminently relaxed bridge section of "Under Cover", six minutes-plus of AM pop-rock that also gives ample attention to a guitar lead that can only be suitably tagged as "tasteful". The aesthetic is so authentically recreated the CD should come packaged in a polyester sleeve.
The project's newly-developed similarity to choice selections from the discography of Michael McDonald certainly makes the ears perk up, but it's also worth noting that The Flower Lane features Ducktails' tightest and most effectively arranged songs yet. Before, Ducktails was prone to drifting in aimless and repetitive fashion until time ran out. Though cuts from The Flower Lane are liable to run on the long side, there's an internal logic to the runtime now, as Mondanile chooses to prioritize songcraft over fiddling about. Those who thought Ducktails more engaging when Mondanile was casting around for ideas by messing around with castoff electronics and his phasered guitar might find such deliberation off-putting, but I find it makes for a far more effective long-player.
Despite his embrace of the gospel of smoothness, Mondanile does retain some scruffier tendencies. Unlike the potential favorites of the bearded-and-permed set found elsewhere on the record, the C86 séance "Planet Phrom" resurrects the spirit of Britain's '80s indie pop landfill, and a few more traditionalist Ducktails dabblings are tacked onto the end of the LP. The continued liberal application of reverb to Mondanile's listless voice ensures that he still sings like a blissed-out narcoleptic with his head stuck in a barrel. Taken on its own, the effect remains a mask for what is evidently the musician's limited vocal range. But in the context of The Flower Lane's slick soft rock, it's a welcome contrast, even if his lack of emotion doesn't make the album any more inviting.
And that's yet another vintage soft rock component The Flower Lane masters: a slick professionalism that's so neat and tidy it becomes dispassionate and distancing. The album's shiny surfaces and tight musicianship subtly whisper "don't touch", preventing any serious emotional connection with the music. The Flower Lane is an album I can respect, but it's not one I can warm up to, much less love. In that regard, it's as wispy as its lower-budget predecessors, providing a polite digression that fades from the memory and the heart not long after the record finishes up.