Album Review: Ducks Ltd. – Get Bleak EP

[Carpark; 2021]

The music of Ducks Ltd. is deceptively bright and fun, not unlike the influences that members Evan Lewis (lead guitar) and Tom Mcgreevy (vocals/rhythm guitar) draw from. They met while on tour while playing in different bands in the Toronto music scene and decided to collaborate based on their mutual love of bands like Felt and The Go-Betweens. These bands understood that sophistication, depth, and melancholy didn’t have to come at the sacrifice of jangling guitar hooks, bright production, or swooning vocal harmonies; these elements weren’t mutually exclusive.

It’s a path that Ducks Ltd. wholeheartedly follow on their Get Bleak EP, though not without their own stylistic and production choices that help them stand out. Their contemporaries Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, for example, put their wild and expansive guitar work front-and-center. Mcgreevy and Lewis, however, take a more democratic approach, where their guitar and bass playing blend with the other instrumentations — drum programming, string arrangements, backing vocals — to create tight fabrics of melodies (Lewis also engineered and mixed the record). This is clear from the start of the EP’s first and title track, where Lewis’s lead guitar is just as vital as the bright acoustic guitar strums and bright bass notes toward creating the song’s breezy energy. Pull something out and the song unravels.

Ducks Ltd. first self-released their Get Bleak EP in November 2019, when they were still called Ducks Unlimited. Last year, they signed to Carpark Records, leading to a re-release of their EP with three bonus songs. And Get Bleak remains a refreshing set of songs that is no less introspective than other, more obviously studied and self-serious, genres. “Gleaming Spires” opens with a bright guitar riff by Lewis that evokes an island paradise, but a paradise it’s not. The song centers around someone who hates the town they live nearby (“How you hate going into town / If you could tear it down you’d do so without hesitation”), yet for all their talk about doing something about it (i.e. getting the fuck out), they do nothing. Understandably, Mcgreevy is puzzled and frustrated (“But at the end of everything / You stood there like Gleaming Spires”), though the song’s rolling energy conceals this, as does his bright yet tender vocals. The words themselves are plenty.

Indeed, the closest the band comes to showing any sort of resentment is on “Anhedonia”, where Mcgreevy sings “Maybe we should fuck off entirely / You lot can fuck off and all” in his most deadpan delivery on the record: listeners can picture the shoulder shrugs. Most often, the songs stay true to their positive energy and trust the listeners to pull out their melancholic messages.  Twinking guitar work and shimmering bass lines give “Annie Forever” — one of Get Bleak‘s most serene tracks — a feeling of genuine warmth and openness; despite Mcgreevy’s talking to someone long gone, it feels like a conversation he wants listeners to hear, an indirect invitation for connection.

Of the three new songs, which are placed as the final tracks on the release, the strongest is “As Big As All Outside”. String interludes complement the soaring energy, all building up the song’s close where Mcgreevy calls out “I’m all the way out” over and over, evoking Ezra Koenig in the process. 

Get Bleak draws on the idea of nostalgia in more ways than one. Apart from their direct influences, listeners may also recall the EPs original release, which got a fair amount of attention at the time. So much has changed in the year-and-a-half since, and, unsurprisingly, some people will look back on that time with a sense of nostalgia. Yet Get Bleak also offers up a refreshing way to manage one’s relationship with nostalgia. It’s a reminder that feeling sad doesn’t mean being sad, to treat the past and present with a touch of fun.