Roughly five years ago, when no one was looking, indie artists began sticking their hands into the deep corduroy pockets of jam bands. Americana was the first to go, then electronica, then ambient rock. Each was strategically passed through a lo-fi filter, hidden behind coy mustaches and, eventually, pumped into Urban Outfitters at a steep markup. Through it all, the lo-fi aesthetic surrounding every pilfered subgenre served as a metaphorical line in the sand. That was jam. This was indie. The line kept shifting, but neither side dared cross.
So what happens when the lo-fi ideal—or the line, for that matter—ceases to exist? Without the right amount of echo, those monotone vocals sound closer to “mediocre” than “hazy” or “intelligently slacker.” The swirling, distortion-free guitar riffs suddenly seem more circular than adventurous. The songs, as a whole, sound a bit less inspired. The listener feels duped.
Such is the issue that plagues Ducktails’ fourth release, The Flower Lane. It’s not a jam record, per se, but it’s a far cry from traditional indie rock. Nevertheless, the new album is bandleader Matthew Mondanile’s most ambitious outing with his Real Estate side project to date, though it remains a disjointed, uneven affair. Whereas fellow ambient torchbearers Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs and Beach Fossils have incorporated new members and sounds into the mix for functional purposes, Mondanile seems to have merely invited a bunch of friends over to play unfinished demos in a studio rather than his bedroom.
The record shows great promise in its first four tracks, then begins to drop off and never quite finds its footing again. “Ivy Covered House” and the title track would make a strong A/B single. “Under Cover” ventures hilariously close to Steve Miller Band breeze, but not in a bad way. “Timothy Shy” is a bit repetitive before falling into an unexpected Neil Young-esque jagged guitar freak-out. It’s a welcome glimmer of an unpolished Mondanile in an otherwise too-smooth operation, but it’s the first and last moment that we see him take any real chances.
As with past Ducktails records, Mondanile’s lyrical themes are mostly vague and intended to serve the instrumentals rather than challenge the listener. “I’m in the back of my mind / Looking for a map” is about as complex as Mondanile gets—which is fine—so long as the music can pick up the slack. But more often than not, his fresh ideas go unrealized, or are perhaps clouded over by these weightless musings on things like the sky and distance and love. The record feels akin to 40 minutes of stoned stargazing in a college dorm room. And the kid down the hall has yet to add substance to the conversation.