Music for Dogs strikes a delicate balance of emotional warmth and cerebral chill.
Gardens & Villa have returned with Music for Dogs, their third album for Secretly Canadian. It’s a departure from last year’s Dunes, and that’s a reflection of changes both personal and professional in the last year. Songwriters Chris Lynch and Adam Rasmussen moved out of Santa Barbara, California to the artist community of Frogtown in Los Angeles. They now share a warehouse, dubbed Space Command, with other creative types. It’s a decision that’s really benefitted their art. While not a sophomore slump, there’s a sense that Dunes was not the record they envisioned
Lynch and Rasmussen have channeled the turmoil and changes of the past year into an LP of material that is at times frantic and foreboding. The brooding “Intro” gives way to “Maximize Results”, a cut that crackles with an underlying sense of paranoia and tension. It's the combination of a motorik beat, breathless vocals, and driving, urgent piano on the chorus. It’s romantic anxiety standing in for a more general feeling of anxiety. Lyrically, it picks up on the anxiety of living in a surveillance society. Like Neil Young on “Speakin’ Out”, sometimes the TV watches them.
The paranoia of “Maximize Results” gives way to “Fixations”, a bright, warm tune, whose melody and use of synths make it sound like a long-lost cousin to Surfer Blood’s “Dorian". It’s the sort of song you’d file away for use on a mix for your latest crush. The sequencing of the first three tracks shows an impressive grasp of tension and release. When “Fixations” begin, it’s like that part in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy walks out of the house, after it’s landed in Oz and the black and white starkness of Kansas is replaced with the bright and color land of Oz.
Subsequent tracks “Everybody” and “Paradise” don’t follow that approach, but differ enough in timbre, that the listener is never overwhelmed by a sense of sameness. Lynch and Rasmussen have a knack for surrounding their melodies in interesting and inventive arrangements. The arrangements are never intrusive and enhance rather than detract from the songs. The brevity of the song titles belies the lushness of the production.
Maintaining the structural template established in the first part of the record is a wonderful idea. It creates some great moments of tension and release. In addition, it reflects the fact that in life, progression in anything, is not necessarily a constant, upwards trajectory. There will be setbacks and frustrations. There will be days where things seem so bleak, it’s difficult to hope for something better. It’s not my place to make assumptions about the mindset of Lynch and Rasmussen, but perhaps their turmoils, personal and professional, coupled with the move to a new location, influenced the sequencing and songwriting for Music for Dogs.
It’s on “Alone in the City” where the paranoia and anxiety returns and it's full blown on “General Research”, a title that sounds straight out of the Krautrock playbook. The theme of technological alienation from “Maximize Results” returns, this time instead of television, the focus is on the omnipresence of email. “Express” features a mechanistic rhythm that at times recalls Field Music doing their best impression of XTC circa-Drums and Wires.
“Happy Times” as the name suggests, focuses on more pleasant emotions. It serves as a snapshot into a relationship, capturing the rush of feelings that come with hitting it off with someone new. It’s unclear if the relationship is platonic or romantic, but any interpretation is valid. It’s reminiscent of that easy sort of camaraderie between dorm mates that accompanies the early part of college, when most everyone is a little unsure of their place in the world and searching for a sense of belonging. The song ends with sounds from the street, a snippet of a mariachi band, evoking the influence of Latino culture on the sights and sounds of Los Angeles.
“Jubilee” picks on the thread of L.A. imagery from the preceding track, but focuses on the uglier aspects of city life, namely snarl of traffic and pollution. The refrain, “It’s an American Jubilee” calls to mind “I Love L.A.”, Randy Newman’s sarcastic ode to the city.
“I Already Do” ends the album on a hopeful note, it’s a wistful and nostalgic track, one that longs for the people and places of times gone by. Moving to a new location and leaving all you knew behind can be an isolating experience. And while the turmoil is evident in the lyrics of Lynch and Rasmussen, it’s also led to artistic growth. These emotions were channeled into a record that is vital and displays a great deal of thought and care.
At just over 36 minutes, Music for Dogs never overstays its welcome. While very approachable, the record does invite and subsequently reward repeat listening. Music for Dogs strikes a delicate balance of emotional warmth and cerebral chill. It’s the well-crafted and thoughtful piece of music that one expects from Secretly Canadian.