While it may not be apparent on a cursory listen, the synthpop group Gardens & Villa underwent a lot of change in the time between last year’s middling Dunes and their third album, Music for Dogs. The band relocated from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, and they reconfigured from a trio to a duo of founding members Chris Lynch and Adam Rasmussen. The two have spoken about the dissatisfaction behind the recording process of Dunes, largely borne out of pressure from their label and issues with their producer. After the dissolution of relationships both romantic and professional, the pair moved to a warehouse in Los Angeles and began writing Music for Dogs, an album they describe as the one they always wanted to make once they felt they had nothing to lose.
That sense of restlessness is present on the album, which stands out as Gardens & Villa’s most cohesive and immediate to date. Coming in at a tight 36 minutes, Music for Dogs sees the band sounding focused and determined throughout, pairing their knack for indie pop melodies with a driving momentum. They have grown more comfortable with their strengths; while on Dunes, Lynch’s falsetto could sound thin, here he recognizes the limitations of his voice and takes advantage of them. On songs like “Maximize Results”, he uses that upper register, purposefully sounding like he’s reaching and out of breath, adding to the frantic energy that serves as the song’s backbone.
After moving to Los Angeles, the duo became fixated on the concept of urban decay and the perils of technology. The pair cite both the British sci-fi series Black Mirror and Aziz Ansari’s standup bits about how technology and social media have altered romantic relationships as inspirations for the album. This sentiment becomes most prevalent on single “Everybody”, which features Lynch singing, “Everybody wants the new you/ Nobody cares who you are/ Taking pictures of the new you/ Watching you from afar.” That paranoia about internet culture recalls St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness”, and while Gardens & Villa don’t capture that essence as pointedly, it still pervades the album.
The album’s similarities with St. Vincent’s latest don’t end there. Just like St. Vincent was influenced by Annie Clark’s collaborations with David Byrne, Byrne’s signature Afrocentric post-punk runs through Music for Dogs, as Gardens & Villa move away from the Depeche Mode-inspired synthpop of Dunes. Songs like “Maximize Results” and “General Research” embody those elements, and the musical references to the past enhance the lyrical themes of worrying about the future.
The band’s fixation on the past both adds to and takes away from the album. On “Fixations”, the ‘60s-inspired psychedelic melodies could fit in nicely on one of the better of Montreal albums. On the other hand, songs like “Express”, which contain elements of disco and new wave, come across as recycled, refitting familiar sounds without adding a contemporary twist.
The album begins with a sense of purpose, but midway through, on the shimmering and stately “Alone in the City”, it loses its momentum. The final three songs, from the soft “Happy Times” to the forlorn “I Already Do”, end the album on a bit of a drag, bereft of the first half’s sharp energy. The sequencing drains the excitement; five songs that would be fine on their own work at odds with the nervous, chaotic drive that opens the album.
Music for Dogs is indebted to the past with a watchful eye on what lies ahead, feeling lost in a world that’s rapidly changing into something unrecognizable and full of uncertainty. Gardens & Villa have improved remarkably at fulfilling their technical goals and fitting into a framework built around the group’s reactionary, watchdog approach to technology. While Lynch and Rasmussen manage a keen awareness of how technology will continue to shape us, the way they process that fear feels tired, not adding anything new to the conversation. The band is worried about the status quo being upset, and that applies to how they approach their music, too.
Essential Tracks: “Maximize Results”, “Fixations”, and “Everybody”