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Ducktails - Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics

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Artist: Ducktails

Album: Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics

Label: Woodsist

Review date: Jan. 17, 2011

The first time I heard "Art Vandelay," Ducktails’ perfect little pop song, it was actually at a Real Estate / Kurt Vile and the Violators show. The opening riff, caught between "Just Like Heaven" and something Guided by Voices, screamed "anthem." By the time Matt Mondanile hit the chorus, singing "Everybody knows / that a book / is hard to finish / when you’re not really into it," the whole crowd had realized something special was going on. I remember going home immediately and searching through Real Estate’s entire catalog looking for any trace of it. That band would probably be the first to tell you that most of its nu-yacht rock sounds awfully similar, so there was a good chance I had just glossed right over it. But there was no trace of it, and it wasn’t until months later when it started surfacing in multiple arrangements that I even learned the song’s name.

The identity crisis in the release of "Art Vandelay" isn’t really that big of a deal. It might even be intentional. The song is, after all, named after a shifting pseudonym that became a catch-all fake name in Seinfeld. Similarly, the New Jersey bands that fill the rosters of Olde English Spelling Bee, Woodsist, Underwater Peoples and other ephemeral labels circulate in and out of projects without any kind of learning curve. Predictably, this has meant that the larger projects have played to the base (Real Estate, Vivian Girls), while the solo explorations became more exploratory. Which usually meant an aimless meandering into pop-scientific hypnagogia that generally should be avoided.

Mondanile’s latest exploration, Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics, shows him going in the opposite direction. There’s no soundscaping to speak of; there are structures, even if they are volatile. Rather than stretch ideas out between the tentpoles, songs either fixate or move on quickly. The catchiest fragments end abruptly on “In the Swing” and “Little Window,” while sonic miasmas swirl around and around the eye of “Sprinter” and “Arcade Shift.” The result is massively uneven.

And that’s what makes it so exciting. “Hamilton Road” and “Don’t Make Plans,” close runners-up for best song, do not sound like much more than rough drafts. The music becomes a shared experience, fraught with the stimulation of riffs that work, the frustrations of a dead-end song, the impatience of tireless writing, and the tolerance of noodly experimentation as someone works something out.

It also makes even more sense that I first heard “Art Vandelay” at a Kurt Vile and the Violators show, because Monandile’s vocal drone and songwriting sound more and more like them everyday. The pop component has the same impatience as Vile’s earliest constant hitmaker status, while the more obsessive-sounding compositions owe a debt to sometimes Violator and War on Drugs principal Adam Granduciel. (Where the 10-minute “Porch Projector” would fall is harder to determine: probably somewhere between Mark McGuire’s architecture of nostalgia and Jack Rose’s house of primitivism.)

It’s slickness that’s the enemy here. The totality of “Killin the Vibe” is ironic, because it’s the dissembling nature of the song’s completeness that really undermines the work Monandile has done up until that point. The view into Ducktails’ inner workings is blocked by the shellacked shrug-alongs that are best left to more performative acts. The greatest appeal of this record is how little acting takes place, how little consideration has been given to “fully realizing the sound.” Because when it comes time to take it or leave it, I’ll take the whole thing without any regrets.

By Evan Hanlon

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