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Posted on July 24th, 2015 (2:00 pm) by Matt LaBarbera

The mausoleum instinct of the Roman Catholic Church is certainly an interesting one. No tour through Italy is complete without a visit to the tombs and sarcophagi of some dozen saints. An opportunity to kneel before the tunic of St. Francis is not to be ignored. A quick prayer to the decollated Caterina in the Basilica of San Domenico is a must. These places of death, solemnity, repose, hibernation, are humming with vitality, an intercessional circuit coursing between life and death and back again. We come to these places to clarify uncertainties, to ask about the future. The dead never really die in those places because they have a future, they are remembered, they are needed. They are the only medium between a probabilistic life and providential one. That’s precisely what makes the cover of the newest Ducktails album, St. Catherine, so unsettling. An empty tomb aged verdigris and filled with forsaken statuary. There is no exchange. Death should not be so hollow, not be so hallowed. Following suit, St. Catherine adopts a solemn yet sinister feel, shading its swirls and swoons with gentle harmonies and copious reverb.

Despite originating as Matt Mondanile’s side project of Real Estate, Ducktails has come into its own project over the past few years, especially following the decent press of The Flower Lane. Whereas Real Estate has a sort of purity and autumnal warmth—a pleasant daydream on a pleasant day—Ducktails is late in the day, strung-out and basking in a low, cold sun. It’s the same pop music, but slowed down and stretched out, made chillier, made alien. “Surreal Exposure” describes the album perfectly: write a perfect pop song, but each time you try to record, it just comes out strange. The song itself navigates a charming but slightly twisted atmosphere filled out with Mondanile’s soft unprocessed voice and faux harpsichord sounds set off by the ghostly choral swirls. The opener, “The Disney Afternoon,” sounds like it could be a cut from one of the syrupier tracks of the newest Unknown Mortal Orchestra record. It’s languorous and shimmering, but never diaphanous. Most people experience some sort of chemically mediated time dilation, but in the case of St. Catherine, the psychedelics are in the sonics.

For this type of music, the mot du jour is hypnagogic pop. Playing off the mistiness of cultural perception and re-perception, indulging in uncanny nostalgia, is the primary modality of such a style, capitalizing on certain sedateness in both the music and listener. Outside of the faddishness of the term, it’s hard to imagine Mondanile would think of himself as outside of such an aesthetic. Sweet violin arcos and floaty basslines surround him as he sings, “I spent all afternoon laying in heaven’s room,” a dream state joining purgation and confession, ultimately begetting salvation. It’s a detachment from anxiety and insecurity, an intercession in which Mary comes down to offer him redemption. The cut “Medieval” has a somber, romantic melody, but appears through a cloudy lens, not distorted so much as partially obscured and slowly shifting. The baroque embellishments become tempered by this interplay between denying lucidity in the arrangements and praying for it in the lyrics.

Uncertainty is not fear. Fear is realistic, it is a reaction to danger and married to resistance. No, these considerations of future and past, probability and providence are anxiety. A gnawing creature that inhabits the worst of all possible worlds. It is stress without an object, a runaway train with no terminus. The empty mausolea through which St. Catherine lazily drifts are loci of such an anxiety, the proximity to death without the promise of intercession. The sweet and sinister tone—inviting, but still brimming with unknown implication—impresses itself like the sunlight filtered through into the nave. Changed, but what does that mean? In ritual posture, we approach the dead to secure the living, a haunted transaction, but one undergirded by a will towards vitality. Mondanile’s future here is indistinct, or worse, unmade. His desire, his instinct, is heavenward, but there is little lucidity. His voice cuts through the haze, but is he heard? On the eponymous song he sings, “There’s nothing left to see. St. Catherine comes alive, an image of an angel sighs.” A gift, a vision, a revelation.

Saint Catherine of Siena, at the age of 28, was furnished with five holy wounds, a mark of God’s love and a mark of certainty. St. Catherine is blessed with similar signs, but they are obscured and distorted, losing distinction in the wake of memory and anxiety. The shrouded production, the ballooning synth pads and endlessly vibrating guitars acquire a density, a palpability. They form a cloud of unknowing that contain within it a few sparkling instants of understanding. There is no shortage of gorgeous moments here: moments that masquerade as antique; grand gestures minimized; love spoken in tongues both sacred and profane; prayer and its answer delivered in melody; inevitability. A beautiful arrangement squinted at from a distance, a wild and woolly composition, a surreal exposure. St. Catherine is precisely its cover: sacrosanct and hollow, resplendent and dull. The patina and what’s underneath.

Track List:

  1. The Disney Afternoon
  2. Headbanging in the Mirror
  3. Into the Sky
  4. Heaven's Room
  5. Saint Catherine
  6. The Laughing Woman
  7. Interlude
  8. Surreal Exposure
  9. Church
  10. Medieval
  11. Krumme Lanke
  12. Reprise
Ducktails - St. Catherine Review
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

76 / 100
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