Gardens & Villa ditch the dull synthpop of their previous outing and turn out one of the year's best rock albums, a gritty art-pop statement crackling with energy.
You got the sense that on Gardens & Villa’s previous two records something wasn’t right. The talent was there, but it sounded like the Secretly Canadian signees weren’t putting their knack for creating ear-catching sonic palettes, by deftly blending the organic and the synthetic, to good use. Instead, 2014’s Dunes found the Santa Barbara natives spending their time dabbling rather unwisely in oversaturated post-MGMT dance-pop, and the lukewarm reception from fans and critics alike doomed the record’s chances at breaking through. It appeared as though these relative new-comers were destined to crumble under the weight of the enormous expectations that come with signing to one of the preeminent independent rock labels and the suffocating ambivalence of the indie blogosphere.
Fortunately, it looks like Gardens & Villa aren’t about to let that happen. After expressing some displeasure with both producer Tim Goldsworthy’s glossy production and the increasing pressure from the label to turn out a synth-pop product, the band acted quickly. Moving their headquarters from Santa Barbara to the concrete sprawl of east L.A. and working now as a duo made of core members Adam Rasmussen and Chris Lynch, they’ve turned in their third and best LP, Music for Dogs, just 18 months after their previous record. The faux-R&B numbers of Dunes are nowhere to be found, replaced instead by a set of songs that contain a newfound sense of assertiveness and a wiry, nervous energy.
The change is announced right out of the gate with “Maximize Results”, a manic burst of post-punk propelled by a relentless bass riff and washes of flanged guitar. “Everything endless, everything now, looking for ways through the feedback,” sings frontman Chris Lynch, alluding to the never-ending stream of criticism an artist encounters on the internet. It’s not the only time their critics are addressed: “Working for the blogs, searching for the saviours, music for the mobs...,” Lynch chants on the tense art-rock workout of “General Research”. “We’ll find a way to generate reaction," Lynch smirks mid-way through the track, and it’s precisely these kinds of moments, where the duo channel digital-age frustration through spiky blasts of arty new-wave, that make Music for Dogs such a compelling listen.
The gentler moments on Music For Dogs work quite nicely as well, particularly the romantic, Morrissey-esque pop of “Everybody” and the luxurious, mid-tempo balladry of “Paradise”, where Lynch’s voice turns from a tightly wound spring to a warm, faux-english-accent-flecked croon. The record’s only true stumbling block comes in the form of the second track, “Fixations”, which trades in the volatile art-pop of the record’s strongest moments for a vaguely neo-psychedelic sound that’s a bit too reminiscent of the current pack of John Lennon-indebted acts. But for a 36-minute record packed with this much energy and lively sonic textures, it’s hardly a complaint, as the brief run time assures the listener that there’s a new idea just around the corner.
But what’s most rewarding about Music For Dogs above all, is having the chance to listen to an artist throwing what’s expected of them out the window, and not being afraid to be themselves, to be a little weird and most importantly in this case, to be a little pissed off. In doing so, Gardens & Villa have granted themselves a new lease on their artistic life, and have produced one of the year’s best rock albums.