In much of the music that I’m drawn to, there’s an expressiveness that induces something akin to synesthesia. Sometimes, it manifests in a sense of color (true to its album cover, Merriweather Post Pavilion is a greenish blue) or distance (Otis Redding is close; “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is far). In Ducktails’ new album, St. Catherine, the effect arises in a particular quality of light.
A result of the jangly guitar riffs that define Matt Mondanile’s pop sound both in Ducktails and his other band, Real Estate, the sense of light comes in a pale glow, the kind that cool music videos shot on southern California beaches create with special filters or the magic hour. It’s no surprise that Mondanile, a New Jersey native, realized his seemingly inevitable fate by writing and recording St. Catherine in and around L.A.
Light, though, is more than a feeling on the album. Drawing from a relationship to Catholicism that began in childhood as an altar boy, Mondanile explores love through the lens and metaphor of the Church. The album’s title track, named for the saint of virtue, invokes illumination in lyrics such as, “Disintegrate into the light / And I’ll fall right into you,” and a repeated refrain that begins, “Blinded by the light.” Whether taken religiously or through the lens of religion-as-metaphor, “St. Catherine" (the song) explores the dissolution of self in the face of “light”—a loved one, beauty, or reverie.
The album’s production enacts that disintegration, subordinating Mondanile’s voice to sunny guitars and the other instrumentals throughout the album. His even singing hits our ears as if through a hazy filter, creating a languid and misty quality—the feeling that he is singing from inside the “afternoon interior dream” mentioned on “Headbanging in the Mirror,” or the ecstatic space constructed in “Heaven’s Room.”
As most things produced in a daydream, the result is inviting and buoyant: pop that’s easy to fall into. Over its five-album career, Ducktails has placed itself at varying distances from its counterpart, Real Estate, an extremely likable band whose most frequent criticism is that all the songs sound the same. St. Catherine remains closer—and therefore less experimental—than previous efforts, though it does venture into stranger moments, such as when the guitar jangle transforms into more of a clang on the eerie staccato of “Church.” It also abandons brightness for a less appealing loftiness-turned-heaviness on the perhaps-not-aptly-named third track, “Into the Sky.” And if the falsetto on the narrative song “Laughing Woman” strikes an uncannily sad and poignant note, it could be because Ducktails worked with Rob Schnapf, co-producer of Elliott Smith’s Either/Or, XO, and other heartbreaking works to help add polish to the album.
And polish it they did. Though not Ducktails’ most inventive work, St. Catherine is a crisp and alluring album. The band may not expand its jangly vocabulary, but at least it uses its existing syntax well enough to sweep the listener up in its warm, bright glow. Under the right conditions and with the perfect light, Ducktails inspires the reverie on which it reflects.