Shimmering synth pop gets a bad rep. Often derogatorily labeled as “bubblegum” or “cheesy,” pop songs laden with synthesizers, drum machines and earnest vocals are often more musically and lyrically complex than on initial listen, their pop beats hiding their inventive arrangements and lyrical intricacies.
Such is the case with Gardens & Villa, a Santa Barbara five-piece synth pop band who put an unconventional spin on the much beleaguered subgenre by using falsetto vocals and classical instruments like flute on their ’80s-inspired songs.
But unconventional doesn’t mean good. On their fine if uninspiring 2011 self-titled debut, Gardens & Villa didn’t just come across as different. They came across as confused and unsure of what kind of band they wanted to be. They experimented with different sounds and hopped from subgenre to subgenre but with little cohesion. This year’s Dunes is the follow-up to their debut, and this time they have enlisted the production nous of DFA co-owner Tim Goldsworthy. It’s an improvement on their last record, even if Dunes doesn’t necessarily stand out among the many better synth pop records of the past few years.
On an overall level, Gardens & Villa have refined their sound, and with a few noteworthy changes. For a start, Dunes is much more melancholy and downtempo. This isn’t the summery band of that debut album, released at the tail end of chillwave’s popularity. Rather, this is a more mature and more introspective outfit altogether. Opener Domino showcases these differences; not only is it more sophisticated musically, with flute arrangements juxtaposed with warbly synthesizers, but lyrically, it’s more realistic (bordering on fatalistic): “Days are numbered / falling under / chasing all the dominoes / for too long,” sings lead guitarist and vocalist Chris Lynch as if he’s just realized that his time on earth is limited. Domino really succeeds because, yes, it’s catchy, but it creates enough space from Gardens & Villa’s other material as well as from better-known synth pop songs with its unconventional musicality. Domino is even better in contrast with the two tracks that follow it: the plodding/stationary Colony Glen and the new agey Bullet Train. During the latter, Lynch’s falsetto and the flutes sound terribly out of place.
Unfortunately, as much as Gardens & Villa no longer sound confused, they occasionally overemphasize the flutes and falsetto vocal. The new agey musical flourishes on Chrysanthemums sound especially like something Tim Robbins’ world music-loving character in High Fidelity might like. Here, Lynch’s falsetto resembles that of Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos; but where Angelakos and his Berklee College of Music buddies know how to properly show off their (synth) pop songcraft and maintain a level of playfulness while tackling serious topics, it seems that Gardens & Villa sometimes confuse maturity with self-seriousness. Purple Mesas is even worse, as it sees them misguidedly taking on Brian Eno, while Lynch sings like an even more maudlin version of Local Natives’ Taylor Rice.
Still, some songs on Dunes certainly do stand out. Domino and especially the awesomely-titled Echosassy, a catchy The Cure-like track sporting Disintegration-era guitars and a brooding bassline, both take well-worn styles and make them original. But it’s still hard not to be disappointed by Dunes. There are echoes of originality, cohesion and pop smarts in Domino, Echosassy, and the retro Avalanche. Unfortunately, while on Dunes’ better songs Gardens & Villa have succeeded at claiming their own sound, the issue that they currently face is that their sound simply isn’t very memorable.