If Matt Mondanile were around in the early 90s, there's no doubt he'd have been lumped in with the Stephen Malkmus. He'd get labelled a generational spokesman and slacker prince even though, in actual fact, both men are actually trying in every sense of the word. In interviews they may seem like they barely care and don't take themselves seriously, yet their music is a testament to the idea that what looks effortless and apathetic is often a result of fertile, unobstructed creativity. Malkmus pooled his love of cryptic lyrics, The Fall, sports, California, and noisy pop to eventually become the hipster king we know and love. He's still vital yet he's long since crested the hill. Mondanile, meanwhile, is just about to get to the middle of his journey.
After unintentionally getting swept into the chillwave scene along with bands like Toro Y Moi and Washed Out, Mondanile spent the last Ducktails record, Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics, with one foot in the past and one in the future. Perhaps it took the ascendance of his 'main' band, Real Estate, to spur him to do something more expansive and focused with Ducktails...? In any case, The Flower Lane sees him take command of a full backing band and various guests, wrangling them all onto a record that remakes Ducktails into something more akin to Panda Bear's “separate but equal” solo stuff outside of Animal Collective.
This means The Flower Lane is really god damn good.
If we're going with the premise that Ducktails are essentially a band now and no longer solo, The Flower Lane could be qualified as the true debut of Ducktails, since until now it was Mondanile fiddling around by himself with guitar psychedelics, electronic soundscapes, and scruffy vocals. Mind you, the leap achieved by The Flower Lane is one of overall sound rather than atmosphere. It's still somewhat retro and nostalgic and feels like a Ducktails album feels...but it sounds different. Ducktails to me always straddled the chillwave scene and the scene occupied by modern psychedelic contemporaries like the Black Angels, Mac DeMarco, The Fresh & Onlys, etc. The 'new' Ducktails are still both to an extent while also nodding to modern synth-pop and defunct brothers-in-arms like The Clean and the Flying Nun record label contingent.
Oddly I think The Flower Lane works as well as it does because it barely resembles the Ducktails of old. More than just putting out a polished version of Ducktails III, Matt Mondanile is also trying new things and doing them well. The syrupy guitar solo on 'Planet Phrom' reminds me of a particularly good Felt or Feelies tune, while the '80s digital delay sound on the horns of 'Under Cover' tips a hat to Destroyer's recent Kaputt. Anyway, if The Flower Lane doesn't sound enough like the old Ducktails you know and love, that's only a bad thing if you just want 30 more versions of 'Killin' The Vibe' and 'Welcome Home (I'm Back).' And yes, sometimes I, too, could go for more of those.
Still, there's no denying how far Ducktails has come. Try comparing songs like the mildly funky 'Assistant Director' to the repetitive, simple, bored-stoned-guy-screwing-around vibe of older stuff like 'Beach Point Pleasant.' No more lo-fi drum beats and guitars ran through a multitude of effects to make up for musical inability/apathy on this record! Now it's more like a sampler platter of saxophones, funky pianos/organs, gleaming neon synth sounds, and female vocals sprayed across a web of jingle-jangle guitars, lucid ruminations, and one of the most reverent and spot-on covers I've ever heard ('Planet Phrom'). With The Flower Lane Matt Mondanile has proven he's a songwriter and artist every bit as capable and imaginative as his better known contemporaries. We may not look back on this one as his masterpiece, but at the very least it's a big step in that direction.