Californians Gardens & Villa abandoned the sun and surf of hometown Santa Barbara for a recording studio set in the frosty Midwest to produce their second album, Dunes. That transition seems to have been an intense experience, having been locked away in that relatively far-flung space. Despite taking a break during recording to explore the adjacent wilderness and gather inspiration, the results seem tempered by the dramatic switch of environment from West Coast to Michigan. On the one hand, there is no doubting this is a tight, mature ensemble. On the other, there is a cooled restraint to the songs that expresses itself in adopting an even keel at the expense of real dynamics.
The band’s name references a property in Santa Barbara where the five-piece hung out and turned an overgrown wilderness into a productive garden. While this back-to-roots heading might suggest a band turning to nature, its songs are more rooted in the late ’70s/early ’80s electropop of a Depeche Mode than in some kind of Midlakean vision. “Colony Glen” features a catchy deep-synth melody, and the mood of the song perfectly fits its dark lyrical content of betrayal and loss. Chris Lynch’s vocals confidently explore the falsetto range but can sound a bit thin and samey. He works best when answered by a female backing voice, as on “Chrysanthemums”, a delicate and downbeat piano ballad.
Though chosen as the lead single, “Bullet Train” suffers in its rather gloomy take on the rat race of daily life: “The young die young if they work too hard.” Though they try, it’s hard to dance all that away. In addition, Lynch contributes bansuri throughout the record, an Indian flute with an overtly reedy tone. The instrument beds in with the synth lines, but the sense remains that they’re not natural partners. On opening track “Domino”, for instance, the flute quivers over an insistent synth groove, briefly soloing, but ultimately clashing with its surroundings. While the band’s proficiency can create high spots, the overall sense is that its tight-knit tunes and detached feelings might have been enhanced more under a Californian sun than worked out in bleak midwinter experimentation.
Essential Tracks: “Colony Glen”, “Chrysanthemums”