Photo: Rob Kulisek

Ducktails: St. Catherine

Matt Mondanile's (Real Estate) latest solo excursion improves upon his refined fuzz-pop approach, though he struggles to find an emotional core inside his casual synth arrangements.
St. Catherine

For what essentially started as a bedroom side-project, it’s a surprise that Matt Mondanile is still making use of Domino’s steady cash flow to sustain his Ducktails project. As the not-so-secret weapon behind Real Estate’s most shimmering jangly melodies, the prolific rhythm guitarist has been putting out a series of unassuming records that quickly fizzle out without much purpose or longevity. The results have been solid, though consistently tame. From the blithe and refined slow jams of Arcade Dynamics to the sophisto-pop leaning The Flower Lane, Mondanile has been seeking ways to freely indulge, joined by an impressive cast of collaborators, with an inherent demand to keep exploring alternatives.

That puts Mondanile in an incredibly envious position: how much longer can a musician whose complete musical trajectory encompasses significant forms of pastiche finally manage to come into his own? It’s admirable to see how he’s been able to acclimate with different styles, and as The Flower Lane suggested but didn’t fully realize, it’s fine time to finally step out of that “chill” comfort zone. But instead of trying out any new or radical change, St. Catherine finds Mondanile further exercising the jazzy accents and airy synth flourishes only hinted at on his last EP Wish Hotel. It begins with the smoky, weightless “The Disney Afternoon”, a laid-back instrumental that incorporates a light drum shuffle as it gently caresses you with its lolling ambiance. It drapes you, letting your senses fill with the calm scent of a nighttime bath.

Mondanile has the ability to silence the mind with the album’s overall amber translucence, as shown in “Heaven’s Room”, which provides a tightly woven arrangement of delicate keys and wispy violin strings wrapped in Julia Holter’s floaty, beatific vocals. Mondanile is not one to work with contrasts, and prefers to work around a similar palette, which is why the baroque prettiness of “Surreal Exposure” doesn’t stray too far off when it incorporates a dose of sunshine pop to its otherwise patient, mid-tempo groove. This is a welcome addition as most of St. Catherine wanes in a tired, rhythmic beat, constantly trying to find a pulse inside his casual synth arrangements (“Headbanging in the Mirror”) or fiery guitar leads (“Into the Sky”) to disguise the album’s straight-laced strumming.

There’s nothing gratingly offensive about Mondanile’s songwriting abilities, though the same can’t be said for the eye-rolling lyrical sentiment that bogs down the entirety of St. Catherine. It’d an overstretch to imagine that Mondanile takes a stream-of-consciousness approach when penning the words to his songs, coming up with a series of banalities to prove there’s some everyday sincerity suffused in his morose delivery. He assumes that words are more effective when they follow a similar rhythmic scheme (“Working nine to five / I won’t play that game / When you caught my eye / I wasn’t the same”), or that they should relate bang on with the drudgery that overcomes him (“It’s paradise / What a novelty / I distract myself from the fantasy”). One of the only exceptions comes in the form of the creepy, though amusing, “Medieval”, in which he describes following an old love’s trace after getting “ghosted” (“My calls and texts don’t get to you / I just wish to hear from you soon.”). It’s truly a chore to really gauge the emotion behind Mondanile’s words, whether it’s contempt or candor, because he treats them with such a detached and emotionless tone.

In spite of improving on his past few records, Mondanile goes back to writing a technically sound and agreeable effort that falls back on familiar concepts. Mondanile knows how to play to his strengths and is quite fearless in not obscuring his limited abilities as a performer, seeing as he’s a skilled player but lacks much stage charisma (his soporific vocals don’t really do him any favors, either). But Mondanile can write a beautiful melody despite the shallow subtleties of his writing, a deftness that can be palpably heard as each of the tracks segue into each other without hardly a hitch. These are the strengths of the mellow slacker, I suppose. But Mondanile’s slow vibe is sacrosanct, a right that cannot be condemned, and St. Catherine is packed with so much self-pity that it ultimately ends up killin’ his vibe.

RATING 6 / 10