Most tracks could easily top Songs of the Week lists.
Gardens & Villa – Dunes
Every week, the online music magazine Stereogum publishes a list of the week’s five best songs. Being the integral component of the hype machine that they are, Stereogum often tops the list with a new song by a well-established act, so when Gardens & Villa’s “Bullet Train” topped this list on November 22 of last year — ahead of psychedelic buzzboys Temples — it came as somewhat of a surprise. It’s likely that many readers were unaware of Gardens & Villa before this list was released, but those who actually took the time to listen to “Bullet Train” were equally likely to feel excitement upon discovering a great new song from a rising group. “Bullet Train” is certainly a standout on this outfit’s sophomore effort, Dunes, but that’s a tough label to assign, since every track shines so brightly.
Dunes begins with “Domino”, a pretty synthpop tune that lightly dips its toes into chillwave’s summer of 2009. Subsequent track “Colony Glen”, the first track released from this album, further cements Gardens & Villa’s fascination with thick synthetic pulses, and displays vocalist Chris Lynch’s uncanny ability to meld his voice into an imitation of James Mercer’s. This similarity, in combination with the track’s eerie electronic elements, absolutely screams Broken Bells (who, coincidentally, will be releasing their sophomore effort After the Disco on the same day as G&V will release Dunes, also their sophomore effort). “Bullet Train” continues the fun, and combines the chillwave leanings and Broken Bells reverence of its two preceding songs.
However, despite Dunes‘ excellent opening triforce, it’s not until fourth track “Chrysanthemums” that Gardens & Villa truly come into their own. What may damn well be a faded recording of a flute loops around deep pianos, computer-programmed clicks, and Lynch’s earnest voice, which reaches nearly harrowing heights in its chorus. “Give back your love,” coo Lynch and a female backing vocalist at the chorus’ end, providing a perfect emotional segway into this track’s flowering (pun intended, although there’s no better description) second verse. It’s Dunes‘ best example of how this band’s songwriting has expanded into an emotionally potent force.
Of course, Gardens & Villa’s sounds wouldn’t ache so brilliantly without DFA co-founder Tim Goldsworthy’s expert production. Goldsworthy’s presence brightens G&V’s sound considerably, and, in the process, provides it with optimism that wasn’t always present in the band’s past works. Whereas older tunes like “Black Hills” and its B-side “Orange Blossom” occupy spacious, somewhat downbeat environments, Dunes is far perkier, its synths blaring colorfully rather than defeatedly. A great example is the Holy Ghost-esque tune “Avalanche”, whose dark undertones are very well-concealed by its lucid guitar notes, pumping bassline, and transcendent synths. The flow and hue of these synths, as well as of those on “Thunder Glove”, are surely Goldsworthy’s contributions, his dance-punk background bleeding directly into these tracks.
It’s hard to pick out flaws from such a strong album, but if Dunes makes just one mistake, it’s that its final track feels like filler. “Love Theme” is a short (one and a half minutes) ambient piece that lacks percussion, focusing on its two or three computer-programmed synth parts. Although ambient music can be thoroughly moving, “Theme” underwhelms as the album’s final moment; an introverted track that still skirts the boundaries of synthpop — something very similar to “Minnesota” — might have provided a more appropriate ending for such an exciting album. But really, degrading Dunes for a brief sidestep is like throwing our your favorite sweater when a millimeter-sized hole forms somewhere near its bottom; it’s cutting off the nose to spite the face. Dunes is an excellent listen over its not-quite-forty minutes, an album on which most tracks could easily top Songs of the Week lists.