Available on: Woodsist LP
Euripides wrote that one can judge a man by the company he keeps, and it’s by this yardstick that the man behind Ducktails, Matthew Mondanile, tends to be introduced. On the one hand Mondanile is probably best known to the world as guitarist with New Jersey-based beach-pop band Real Estate, yet at the same time he is inseparably associated with the labels he has released most of his solo work on – hypnagogic label-of-the-moment Olde English Spelling Bee and lo-fi psychedelic kings Woodsist.
And, as it goes, that’s some pretty great company to be associated with. It’s also pretty indicative of what you can expect from Ducktails musically; a little of the scuzzy, sun-drenched pop of Real Estate meets the one-man innovation on-a-budget that Olde English Spelling Bee is known for, combined with the odd wonky, psychedelic guitar part often associated with Woodsist owners Woods. There is a fourth element that makes up the Ducktails equation, however. In naming his solo project after a late ’80s/early ’90s cartoon Mondanile is evoking a nostalgic tone that will appeal to people of a certain generation (I assume that Mondanile and I must be of a roughly similar age), and this certainly carries through into his music.
So does this all mean that Ducktails is nothing more than the obvious sum of its parts? Well, on Arcade Dynamics, Mondanile’s third proper full length, the answer is both yes and no. In one sense there is little on display on the record that we haven’t seen in recent months either from Mondanile’s previous output or from that of his Woodsist and OESB label mates. Here Mondanile’s vocals feature a lot more than they have on his previous, largely instrumental outings. While, on tracks like single ‘Hamilton Road’, Mondanile shows that he obviously knows how to use his voice to great effect and layers it well amongst the other instruments, he is moving into a crowded marketplace – it’s fair to say there are already a lot of people out there doing the washed-out singer/songwriter thing very well and, while he clearly has an ear for a good pop melody, nowhere does he match, say, Woods’ ‘Rain On’ for an engaging, beautiful vocal performance.
That said, the trick that Mondanile does have up his sleeve is his spot-on ear for nostalgia. In Ducktails’ best work he has an uncanny ability to evoke sounds and textures from the era he takes his band name from. The slightly off-key nature of opener ‘In The Swing’ has a tone to it reminiscent of an old Walkman struggling to keep going as its batteries die – of trying to listen to old pop tunes taped off the radio as the pitch and tempo steadily drop with the last of the power. Meanwhile Arcade Dynamics’ more repetitive, hypnagogic tracks like ‘The Razor’s Edge’ and ‘Arcade Shift’ could easily be covers of music taken from the soundtrack of some forgotten Sega Master System game. Sure, Mondanile isn’t the only one out there right now with one eye fixed on the late ’80s, but when he gets this sense of loving, emotive nostalgia right he’s difficult to beat. Elsewhere he is, at the very least, a talented bedroom producer with an ear for a great melody. So yes, at times Ducktails sounds a lot like the sum of its parts – but these are pretty great parts to be composed of.