All I can think about upon seeing the band name/album title combo on this disc is playing SNES at my best friend’s house after watching Saturday morning cartoons. The rapidfire flashing lights, quick movement, and wacky music aren’t exactly attributes I’d give to Matthew Mondanile’s past work under the Ducktails moniker. Also a guitarist for Real Estate, Mondanile’s past work is bedroom-recorded, surfy psychedelia often put out on cassette. There was, however, a definite nostalgic quality to his first eponymous release or Landscapes, a hazy reaching back to a time in which hours and hours of Animaniacs and Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars was a more acceptable schedule for the day. And any encouragement that I can get to return to that kind of schedule is one that I’ll embrace heartily.
It should be first be noted that this album is a great leap from Mondanile’s last couple of albums, both in terms of a focus on songwriting and a distancing from the Slurpee-thick lo-fi-ness that was at times a great strength. There aren’t as many meandering instrumental bits (though the album does open with a significantly less distant one, in “In the Swing”), but instead expands into bigger, poppier song structures. Always at the heart of the material is Mondanile and his guitar, whether playing to the drum machines of the earliest recordings or the live drumming on this one. On “In the Swing”, his electric and his acoustic solos duel for attention over a simple, flowing chord progression, wah pedal compressed.
Even cleaned up, Ducktails sounds lo-fi, instrumentation peaking, drums sounding thin and distant. “Hamilton Road”, the album’s second track, is relaxed, floating by easily, a bedroom lamp-lit, lightly-practiced, Mondanile droning in a low-tone drawl. It’s an indie rock song with a twang, a great little song that evokes the “ocean dancing” and the “ripple of the tide” without overdoing the surf-iness. But then “Sprinter” follows, and he’s there in front, singing again, producing another pop-friendly song.
But hardcore, early Ducktails fans need not worry: the weird “The Razor’s Edge” follows, a Fruity Loops squelching percussive sample repeating itself as Mondanile takes chugging swings at the guitar, Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack recorded underwater. Mondanile is simultaneously pushing out into new territory (which for him is the most traditional territory) and relishing his original ideas, seemingly releasing whatever comes to mind. Which makes each successive Ducktails release an interesting document of a musician at the forefront of a prominent genre.
“Little Window” comes later, a clear vision of that very description. It sounds more like Fleet Foxes than Ducktails, a fingerplucked acoustic guitar, tambourine, bass interlude that wanders in and out of the album almost quickly enough. “Killin’ the Vibe” follows, though, video game bass synth and narrow percussion providing a bass for a fun indie pop tune about Mondanile not being able to “take your lame style.” It’s a bit one-note, but it’s enough fun to keep it from being annoying. The repeated three lines are endearing the first few iterations, then a bit grating, then fun again.
Whether it’s the arcade soundtrack revival of “Arcade Shift”, the jammy beachfront atmospherics of “Porch Projector”, or the melancholic pop of “Art Vandelay”, Mondanile sounds comfortable putting together melodies and textures in varying degrees of domination for each half of the equation. As the albums flow into and out of styles of songwriting and sound, Mondanile too has varying degrees of control or domination. But still, the nostalgic, ethereal quality of the music makes everything more refreshing and exciting than someone merely dabbling.