Album Review: Ducktails – The Flower Lane

[Domino; 2013]

Woozy guitar lines, simple pop structures, ambiguously nostalgic vocals–must be a new Real Estate album! Oh, wait, it’s not; it’s just the new release from Ducktails, side project of Real Estate’s guitarist Matt Mondanile.

Forgive my confusion. See, The Flower Lane tries its best to sound like a Real Estate album, which seems counterintuitive because, like, if I wanted to listen to a Real Estate record, I’d throw on their self-titled one or the excellent Days. Or something by Beach Fossils or the War On Drugs, I don’t know. Point is, there are things I want from a Ducktails album, and “jangly pop rock” isn’t one of them. We’ve got enough of that.

No, I’d much rather Mondanile go back to exploring the gleefully weird abstraction of his eponymous cassettes or 2009’s still-wonderful Landscapes. Even the more recent–and more straightforwardly poppy–Arcade Dynamics offered a sort of homespun take on the nascent bedroom-laptop-folk sound that I just now made up but probably exists for real somewhere, somehow, as somebody’s Bandcamp tag. Unfortunately, it was also rather flat and unremarkable, a trend which The Flower Lane blithely continues.

See, this is Matt Mondanile’s singer-songwriter record. And I commend him for following his artistic vision; it takes a certain amount of guts for a “lo-fi” artist to adopt a more polished and accessible sound. But “accessible” in this case just means that it doesn’t sound difficult. Whereas a Real Estate album would let simple instrumentation give a voice to the band’s clever songwriting. On The Flower Lane Mondanile apes Ariel Pink’s radio-on-Robitussin timeless vibe with little of the timelessness. “Ivy Covered House” starts off as an alright jam, but lyrics like “You can whisper in my ear / Words so precious and so dear” are cringe-inducing in a way I wouldn’t have expected from a Ducktails song. His typically tape-warped guitar strumming is joined during the chorus by a second, cleaner, more psychedelic guitar line, a juxtaposition that creates an interesting dynamic that deserves a catchier hook than Mondanile provides.

The title track, “Letter of Intent,” and “Under Cover” aim for a funkier sound, the latter especially sounding like a would-be bonus track on Before Today. It even features a sax solo. But again, unlike that album’s “Butt-House Blondies” or “Fright Night (Nevermore),” these and other songs on The Flower Lane aren’t nearly as melodically or developmentally compelling. “Timothy Shy,” meanwhile, is downright glam for a Ducktails song, punctuated by disco strings and a stabbing piano. These are genre-broadening musical chances that I’m glad to see Mondanile take, but they’re still ultimately boring.

That’s the most disappointing aspect of The Flower Lane. Sure, Mondanile is trying out different instruments and approaches to studio mixing (the grungy guitar solo on “Timothy Shy,” for example, is harder-edged than anything he’s released before) and that’s great. But it also sounds like he’s trying to sound less weird, when he doesn’t seem to understand that this very weirdness is part of what made him so endearing as a solo artist in the first place. “Assistant Director” and “International Dateline” are the exceptions here, all bongos and wordless passages and fuzzy, spaced-out guitar jams, and they both manage to build up an appropriately hazy atmosphere that succeeds in a more ambient way, enveloping the listener in mood rather than attempting to win the  over with half-baked melody. It’s hardly surprising that these tracks most closely resemble his earlier work. I have faith that Matt Mondanile can expand his musical vision as Ducktails without sacrificing the charm that marked works like Landscapes. But why would I bother visiting this Flower Lane again when instead I could take another “aimless drive through green aisles”? That was fun, more fun than this.