I think it’s fair to say that, over the last two years or so, the indie limelight (or at least the ‘new stuff’ portion of the indie limelight) has been dominated by artists at the aesthetic crossroads that unite genre constructions like “witch house,” “balearic,” “glo-fi,” “shitgaze,” “hypnagogic,” and, most prominently, “chillwave.” Some of the same threads also stitch dubstep to the brand of psychedelic lo-fi represented by the likes of Sun Araw or Pocahaunted. The more transparent kind, exclusive to the pop cloud, is a certain brand of nostalgia for suburbia/the beach/the 80s… or whatever. The really important stuff, however, addresses themes uniting basically the entire musical gestalt that some of us are now choosing to live in: (1) technology vs. primitivism and (2) professionalism vs. amateurism.
Matthew Mondanile’s Ducktails solo project started life very much in this latter mold. In fact, it helped to define it. His early albums were released on cassette (long since de rigueur) and consisted of loose jams, often driven by drum machines or samples dated by a couple of decades and buried under tape hiss/60 cycle hum/reverb/distortion. Fuzzed out, instrumental tribal-electro. Like all primitivism, of course, Ducktails’ was always deliberate — when it’s so easy to pirate Fruity Loops and make professional-sounding albums with it, recording to 4-track with actual pedals takes on vaguely sacramental overtones. Like the vast majority of all current independent music, Ducktails records have up until now been centered around the textures of their intentionally primitive technologies.
So it’s at least slightly jarring to listen to Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics. There’s enough of the textural and atmospheric to it — peaking amps, sloppy drumming, detached singing — that you can sleepwalk through a couple of tracks, but then, whoa, wait, singing? There’s some kid singing and playing acoustic guitar. And it keeps going through most of Arcade Dynamics, an album surprisingly full of strumming, choruses, ride cymbals, and tambourines.
While Arcade Dynamics is a major turn for Mondanile, it’s aesthetically in line with the trajectory of many modern acts that also hide behind effects and atmosphere as they develop their songwriting chops. Take an artist like Grouper, who after several years of shyness stripped away a couple of layers of hiss only to sound more like herself than ever. But Arcade Dynamics is much more of a swerve than Dragging a Dead Deer up a Hill was — just check out “Little Window,” a jaunty guitar ramble that draws from what many indie psychers might consider the wrong side of Grateful Dead; or “Killing the Vibe,” with its subtly detached but overtly shit-eating chorus. And it’s not just that the haze and distortion have been taken down a notch; the music underneath has gotten brighter. Tonally, Ducktails is now much less Sun Araw/Oneohtrix Point Never and much more Girls/Wavves.
Well, okay, not entirely. There’s that detachment still exuding from the vocals — and it’s not the guarded sensitivity of a Beth Constantino; it’s the I’m-not-quite-comfortable-emoting-with-my-voice kind that has its own charm. There are also a couple of tracks — “The Razor’s Edge” and “Arcade Shift” — that hail back to jammier stuff, and there’s still plenty of fuzz and echo throughout. But most of all, and least welcome, there’s the familiar simplicity of the songs. While Mondanile’s tone here isn’t all too far from that of Neutral Milk Hotel or Animal Collective, the comparison signifies a level of musical maturity that isn’t actually present on this particular album. Sure, there are several great core ideas here — the catchy line and rich ambivalence of “Don’t Make Plans,” the structural and lyrical clarity of the unfortunately titled “Art Vandelay” — but most of them barely develop beyond one-part jams, with maybe a solo near the end.
Arcade Dynamics is not Mondanile’s bid for the indie mainstream, much less the mainstream-mainstream. It will still appeal mainly to those who love the shambolic and the half-formed. But the album does suffer a bit from the expected transitional identity crisis, and it seems to point towards more polished, calculated releases in the future, like it or not.