Matthew Mondanile is an understated player in the world of indie pop, largely because he helps drive the ever-loved indie mogul Real Estate with the strings of his guitar rather than the cords in his throat. If there was a greater focus on his more independent work as founding member of Ducktails then it’d be pretty easy to say that Mondanile is reaching that critical threshold at which point he’ll be an in-demand player in the world of indie pop as long as he’s in the game. Ducktails was easy to label a novelty act for serious Real Estate fans, at first, because it was decidedly unilateral in its approach, just one of too many solo bedroom pop acts that relied too heavily on lo-fi saturated tones and lacking that touch of chemistry which a true band can impart on the creative process. While this album can sound at times uncharacteristic of the original Ducktails identity, The Flower Lane is that step forward to propel Ducktails into the forefront as a band which stands on its own, a collective that has enough momentum to carry a distinct fan base.
Ducktails at heart is about indie pop of the instrumental persuasion, relying on subdued vocals to carry the songs forward and allow the instruments to do most of the talking. Their music displays more influences from the indie realm rather than a more vocal-centric style or the ubiquitous Phil Spector “wall-of-sound” method. This creates a much more sophisticated feel to their style: where a lot of pop is straight ahead sugar, Ducktails fares on the drier side. Red wine rather than champagne. Their songwriting is more adventurous, varied and ambitious than the normal straight ahead pop formula, and this means longer tracks with more involved movements which require longer attention spans. In one song the listener can hear 80’s inspired keyboard lines over easy going guitar chords and lo-fi tenor vocals, and in the next the guitar can take on a hint of overdrive with cleaner keys and heavier drum lines. The mashup of stylistic elements found in this record give a feeling that the record is a contemporary look at 30 years of pop music without feeling stuck in the past.
Ducktails’ “The Flower Lane”
Take the dynamite track “Under Cover” for example. This song employs very mature time manipulations and pushes the rhythm by switching from downbeat strikes into upbeat notes to call in an instrumental break as a segue back into verse from the chorus which was soft enough to miss on first listen. This is a song written with input by multiple bandmates, without a clear hook, and relying on the listener envisioning a live performance. Albeit this sounds un-pop like on paper, and yet the timbres won’t allow the final product to be placed in any other category really. Throughout the record there are anachronistic accents from mid-90’s guitar tones like chorus flanger and phaser delays to mild background synth, but the songs sound decidedly contemporary especially with the more contemporary sounding clean piano lines found in a lot of these tracks.
Though vocals aren’t a main focus of the record there are nuances to be found on dissection that give the listener insight into the care with which these songs were crafted. The track “Timothy Shy” follows a man explaining his uncharacteristic shyness around his femme of interest, meanwhile the song itself is one of the most assertive on the record with unified staccato strikes from all instruments and the most rock influenced guitar solo on the album. In later tracks, the vocals get a boost from an as yet unnamed female singer who really elevates the mood in “Sedan Magic” and “Letter of Intent.”
Though the record presents a step forward for Ducktails’ solidarity and brings promise for longevity in the scene, there are some elements that really worked in previous records that are notably absent in the newest release. With the exception of the album closer “Academy Avenue” there is a total lack of acoustic instrumentation. There are those of us who happen to get kicks from well crafted acoustic pop and Ducktails was able to create a nidus for growth in the first place with awesome acoustically based tracks on their previous releases. The bright ring found in “Sprinter.” The 6/4 transition in “Art Vandelay.” The cheerful front porch jam “Little Window.” These tracks were among the strongest statements from Ducktails previously because of their laid back acoustic timbre and genuine feel. Unfortunately, The Flower Lane can fall prey to sounding too produced and insincere at times.
This overcompensation from lo-fi to hi-fi production notwithstanding, Matthew Mondanile stretches his legs a bit more in this album compared to previous Ducktails and Real Estate efforts. He has surrounded himself with a group of musicians who are starting to distance themselves from other indie pop acts thanks to their self-assured pop craftwork and unified chemistry. This new dynamic has proved excellent kindling for the creative process on this album and hopefully future releases will see Ducktails continue to reach for sophisticated pop songwriting while regaining some of the nostalgic feel of previous acoustic endeavors.
Written by Case Newsom
[The Flower Lane comes out on Jan 29th, to pre-order/order the album on iTunes just click here]