It’s probably not by accident that “The Disney Afternoon,” the opening track on St. Catherine, the new album by U.S. indie rock group Ducktails is reminiscent of the childhood reverie of Alice in Wonderland. The instrumental track is a technicolour slice of psych-pop that finds lackadaisical guitar lines and an easy-going piano riding a breezy summertime groove.
Unlike Disney’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, the musicians behind this sun-dappled pop magic are not a group of anthropomorphised flowers, but Matt Mondanile (also of the similarly jangly indie rockers Real Estate) and friends. The music of Ducktails is characterised by a blurry, dreamy sound, with each instrument cloaked in reverb and Mondanile's gentle boyish vocals largely buried in the mix. What’s surprising about St. Catherine though, is that there is surprising amount of sonic complexity beneath the hazy surface.
Check out “Headbanging in the Mirror” and try to argue that the star of the show is not the guitar arpeggios, but the murmuring bass that cuts through the mix. It’s thanks to co-producer Rob Schnapf that these songs escape being a cloud of fuzzy textures and soft shadows and shine through as actual songs.
It’s not all sunshine though. St. Catherine is for the most part a daydream – characterised by the kind of warmth you can feel on your eyelids when you’re lying in the sun – but at moments it can turn dark. The string-drenched “Medieval” features a downcast tone in the album’s second half. It’s not a sad song per se, but provides a complexity of feeling that would be missing otherwise.
Despite its excellent production and the musical chops on display, St. Catherine can become a same-y experience over its length. It takes a while to pick out the finer details, so some of the songs – particularly in the first third – can blur together. Overall, however, Ducktails take enough detours, such as the synth-pop leanings and vocals supplied by indie pop queen Julia Holter on “Church” that make it a clear standout, for the record to remain in the listener’s consciousness.
With its gorgeous texture and (mostly) sunny disposition, St. Catherine is a lovely record. It may not be groundbreaking, but it’s still an unbeatably pleasant experience. Listening to it, one gets the sense that Ducktails weren’t going for something exciting and challenging, but something rich with feeling. In that case, they’ve succeeded quite brilliantly.
St. Catherine is out now on CD, vinyl and digital formats.