The refinement of Matt Mondanile’s work as Ducktails might not always be obvious. The changes he makes are slight from album to album, year to year. But he’s grown in leaps as a solo artist, and St. Catherine shows a far more delicate, subtle, polished version of his bedroom pop. He’s clearly doing more than lazily chopping away at his sound and process; he’s carefully, thoughtfully taking steps towards a remarkable clarity.
As the guitarist for Real Estate, Mondanile relishes in waterfalls of guitar and the hazy tint of nostalgia that settles into sunny backyards and familiar faces. Those traits have been essential to his Ducktails sound as well, though the haze has been whittled away bit by bit, leaving the memories clearer. That’s true of the production on St. Catherine, thanks to Elliott Smith producer Rob Schnapf. Some of the edges are still a bit wobbly — the guitars carry that signature watery tone, and Mondanile’s voice charms in its simple sincerity — but the core rings clearer than it has before, as if, like an optometrist, Schnapf clicked one more lens into place to make sure his patient could see his musical world as intended. There’s a bit of the ’60s psych pop breeze to the instrumentation as well, as if Mondanile grabbed the same loungey influences as Stereolab, but fused them with his bedroom pop guitar and wispy vocals rather than krautrock and synths.
Julia Holter contributes vocals to the album as well; her presence on tracks like “Heaven’s Room” adds a divine gravitas to Mondanile’s plainspoken lyrics. “She offered me a room in heaven, saving me from grief,” he sings, adding notes about “a big white cloud” and confessing his sins. There’s a childlike wonder and hope to his lyrics and voice, and feathery violins and Holter’s angelic vocals flutter down as if in response to and justification of his prayer-like tone. Thrift store drum machine and more fizzy vocals from Holter bring a lushness to the closing “Reprise”, driving Mondanile further into a dream world than he’d been capable of when relying more exclusively on guitar.
Highlight “Headbanging in the Mirror” manages to fuse Ducktails’ new clarity and the soft smear of nostalgia without those elements canceling each other out. With help from experimental musician James Ferraro, Mondanile builds a slowly bobbing raft of vibraphone, acoustic guitar, and sweet backing vocals, with a current of electric guitar pushing it all forward. Lyrically, he’s in the mirror, wishing he could see clearer in the first chorus, then getting that wish later. He’s coming down from an “afternoon interior dream,” though the song still sounds plenty dreamy. He was “born in New Jersey,” and that detail is given as much power as the “now” he inhabits in LA. Everything is a blur of now and then, clear and hazy, dream and reality, yet that blur is delivered so specifically.
Elsewhere, though, that duality is harder to represent. “My calls and texts don’t get to you,” Mondanile sighs in the midst of wistful, romantic strings and retro warmth on the lithe “Medieval”. It’s not that Mondanile shouldn’t be singing about the present day, that he should be stuck in the past; the song just feels timeless other than that one line, making it stick out all the more. The rest of the song could pass for any time, the singer describing driving past an ex’s room and wondering about who stops and stays now that he doesn’t. It’s as if for a moment the old-timey filter that he’d been projecting these home movies through slipped into frame and the magic diminished. Luckily, though, that’s the only really troubling slip in temporality on the album, and warm nostalgia runs sweetly and freely through St. Catherine‘s 11 tracks.
Essential Tracks: “Headbanging in the Mirror”, “Heaven’s Room”