Graded on a Curve:
Ducktails,
The Flower Lane

Ducktails is the work of Matthew Mondanile, a musician most notable through his membership in the New Jersey band Real Estate. As a solo endeavor on the side, Ducktails has undergone quite a few changes over the years, and the boldest example is the new release The Flower Lane. If its ambitions and moves toward the indie mainstream produce an oft-frustrating whole, Mondanile’s considerable talent still sporadically shines through.

Matthew Mondanile’s side-project Ducktails has undertaken such a major shift in development that exposing fresh ears to a brief sampling of the old and the new could very likely result in doubts that the music actually derived from the same source. The older material, often released on cassette and CD-R, was chocked full of low-fi soundscapes radiating an expansive vibe that still managed to feel derived from one creative fount.

The early work was quite strong overall, presenting an off-center personality through excursions almost entirely instrumental and frequently cyclical but also occasionally flirting with more conventional flashes of melody. But it also distinguished itself through its general accessibility, often promoting moods that were agreeably relaxing.

A handful of Ducktails releases featured pictures of palm trees on their covers, images that assisted in intensifying the laid-back vibe. Edgy, avant-garde inclined stuff is frequently threatening or unsettling, but what Mondanile was up to felt fairly welcoming and hazily retro in its drowsy psychedelic intent, an aura enhanced by the use of the cassette format and the name of the whole enterprise, a tweaking of a ‘80s cartoon television show. The results often registered like an agreeably abstract vacation, and it was part of a prolific if rather submerged scene that was coined as “hypnogogic pop” by The Wire magazine’s David Keenan a few years back.

Well, that descriptor didn’t really catch on. And with 2011’s III – Arcade Dynamics Mondanile began distancing himself from the pack through pop songwriting that was more pronounced if still somewhat low-fi. Vocals became far more frequent. Of course, this progression into relative normalcy wasn’t really a surprise given the great precedent of musicians starting out strange and then growing increasingly less out-there over time.

And III – Arcade Dynamics was in no way a disappointment, loaded with strong songs that mainly due to the use of a non-slick drum machine sometimes brought to mind East River Pipe merging with Kurt Vile. There was some attractive post-Velvets influence on display as well. But the fineness of that record also drew some comparisons to Mondanile’s main band, the decidedly more guitar-pop conventional Real Estate.

That group’s outstanding second album Days was also issued in 2011 to more than a bit of hubbub, so it came as no great surprise that Ducktails’ third LP ended up taking a back seat, its status as side-project secure. But Real Estate has been quiet on the release front since Days came out, a circumstance mirrored by Ducktails’ concurrent lack of activity. Without keeping a close eye on Mondanile’s profile, it did seem a real possibility that his secondary unit might dissipate under Real Estate’s sizeable success (Days hit #52 on the US Album Chart and received quite a few critical accolades.)

The Flower Lane arrives to dispel such notions and in so doing it’s the most polished expression of pop conventions yet released under the Ducktails moniker. In fact, the opening moments of the new record’s first track “Ivy Covered House” are virtually indistinguishable from what Real Estate unveiled on their last album. Closer inspection reveals “Ivy Covered House” to be just a touch more forceful, with a nicely rendered, lightly psyche-tinged guitar solo in its mid-section, but it’s still clearly within the zone of his main gig.

The next song, the album’s title track, brings the record’s substantial differences to the table. It features an electric keyboard that can’t really escape being tagged as soft-rock in orientation, but instead of merely grappling with a ‘70s-centric gratuitousness, the track indulges in a seriousness of high-studio pop intent that while surely comparable to Steely Dan is also in line with the unapologetically smooth work of ‘80s Brit bands like Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, and The Style Council.

This is some seriously dangerous territory quite frankly, but it passes muster due to the strength of the song and the calmness of Mondanile’s vocals. But the next song “Under Cover” doesn’t fare quite so well. An uptempo hunk of lite-pop adorned with the sort of sophisto-funky guitar the abovementioned UK groups sometimes succumbed to utilizing, it’s also burdened with some relentlessly breezy sax tooting that makes it clear just how quickly influential Destroyer’s Kaputt has become.

As an exercise in stylistic excess it certainly succeeds, right down to its six minute running time. But unfortunately that doesn’t equate with a pleasant listening experience, at least for this correspondent. This sort of yacht-rock descended stuff is getting to be quite common these days, and outside of Dan Behar it’s mostly the aural equivalent of a pastel blazer with rolled-up sleeves.

“Timothy Shy” retains some of the problematic elements of the previous two tracks, its structure alternating a politely stomping electric piano jaunt with interjections of scrappy but quite polished guitar straight out of the ‘80s Brit-pop playbook. But it’s also a big improvement over “Under Cover,” the second half of “Timothy Shy” getting covered in a surprisingly raw guitar solo that’s accented with a pop-proggy synth flourish before a rather abrupt ending, just when things were getting really interesting.

From there the quality meter surges upward through a superb cover of “Planet Phrom” originally by Peter Gutteridge, a founding member of New Zealand’s The Chills. As a fine example of Mondanile’s talent, it can become a bit difficult to reconcile the song’s direct beauty with the shenanigans of “Under Cover,” a situation that’s similar to the striking differences between The Flower Lane and major early Ducktails tracks, the wondrously loopy (in more ways than one) “Beach Point Pleasant” for one example.

And the electro-funk of “Assistant Director” really enhances the schizophrenic feel of the proceedings. Cuts like “Planet Phrom” and “Ivy Covered House” clearly enunciate Mondanile’s participation in Real Estate, but many of the other tracks can connect like creations from a totally different personality. While somewhat unexpected, the line of development from early Ducktails and III – Arcade Dynamics still felt pretty natural, but the progression from that LP to The Flower Lane comes off as fractured to varying degrees.

But “Sedan Magic” almost seems like an attempt to combine this budding auteur’s guitar-pop side with his more extravagant indulgences, and while mildly likeable (mainly due to the guest vocals of Madeline Follin of Cults) it doesn’t really succeed in bringing focus to The Flower Lane’s whole. To elaborate, the far too brief bit of instrumental low-fi “International Dateline” is, eight songs into the album, the first to actually feel connected to the last Ducktails record.

“Letter of Intent,” sung by Jessa Farkas of Future Shuttle and Ian Drennan of Big Troubles (who are essentially the backing band for this LP) is ‘80s-style synth-pop given a contemporary twist courtesy of guest contributors Ford & Lopatin. And while another digression, through sturdy songwriting and warmth of delivery it stands as one of the record’s best tracks, proving that the departures of The Flower Lane, if highly erratic, can still bear high-quality fruit.

The jangly strum of closer “Academy Avenue” provides a second glimpse of Mondanile circa-2011; in a sense it and “International Dateline” serve as reminders that the guy who made III – Arcade Dynamics still lingers under the surface of this album’s occasionally problematic ambitions.

The Flower Lane is a textbook example of a hit and miss record, essaying peaks and valleys that are far preferable to a flat-line of mediocrity or worse. The high points don’t negate the failures, but at least they provide examples of Ducktails’ unspent potential and hope that Mondanile’s side-project will return to a more consistent path.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C+

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