Album Review: Gardens & Villa – Dunes

What does the passing of time sound like? That’s the question that Santa Barbara retro synth-pop band Gardens & Villa seem to be asking often on their sophomore record Dunes, out this week on Secretly Canadian. We first met Gardens & Villa back in 2011 with a self-titled LP decorated with jewels like “Black Hills” and “Spacetime“, painting a neon picture of the world, warped by technology but still swaying with the ebb and flow of the surf. But on Dunes, we see the same timeless landscape given an end date. No longer carefree and blissfully aimless, these five wanderers are left to find their unique place on a cold, uninviting plane. The result of this quest is a brilliant and poignant ten song collection of questions, both asked and and answered. Gardens & Villa return for round two throwing some pretty devastating punches, and it’s fair to say in Dunes we see one of 2014’s earliest winners.

The story behind Dunes is a fun one. After working with the fantastic Richard Swift on their self-titled, the band turned to acclaimed producer Tim Goldsworthy (Cut Copy, Hercules & Love Affair) to harbor their sonic progression for the sophomore effort. In addition, they left their Santa Barbara home and moved to Benton Harbor, Michigan, a factory town whose factories all closed decades ago. Over the last fifty years, the town’s population has trickled, and it now gives home to just over ten thousand people. It was here in an abandoned building full of old VHS tapes, in the dead of winter old a mile or two from Lake Michigan, that Gardens & Villa put together the sequel to their summery debut. Despite the completely danceable nature of tunes like “Avalanche” and “Domino”, the setting fits the lyrics and overarching feelings of isolation and anxiety perfectly. Dunes is a record of paradoxes. “Domino” beckons you into a flute-driven groove while Chris Lynch sings “My days are numbered, falling under, chasing all the dominoes far too long”. “Chrysanthemums” finds one good thing to focus on while chaos ensues elsewhere, sung over Adam Rasmussen’s bright, warm piano. Everywhere on Dunes, there is hope and anticipation of the sun, but always in wake of the dark and the cold.

The contrast between these ideas is best seen in the center of the album. The dance numbers on side one of Dunes culminate in “Echosassy”, a driving, cold-wave burner. Here, Lynch’s falsetto is in full display as Shane McKillop burns through a murderous Peter Hook-esque bassline and Levi Hayden is a blur of forward motion on the hi-hats and snare. It’s here that the warmth of the first couple tracks sees its first sunset. Lynch’s lyrics depict two lovers feeling the end of youth and the cynical influence of the media tear down the walls of their hopefulness. Donned with chimes, “Echosassy” plays like a music box from your childhood that you are told you used to love. All of this energy leads into the reserved hook of “Purple Mesas”, a textbook Gardens track that allows the listener a moment to recollect their thoughts in the natural beauty that surrounds us all. Here, the sadness felt before still echoes, but the record’s longest cut lets the darkness wane in the knowledge of an oncoming dawn before the pounding disco groove of “Avalanche” sets in.

With every moment of defeat on Dunes, Gardens & Villa provide a hopeful rebound. The tug of war found therein paints a perfect picture of youth on the verge. In a time of transition, we are left to choose between moments of glory and moments of retreat – times where we venture forth in reckless abandon and other times where all we really want is a shoulder to cry on. Dunes soundtracks all of these wonderfully, giving us an account of struggle and tumult with a promise of beauty just over the horizon. For their sophomore LP, Gardens & Villa have outdone themselves, creating a record that draws you in upfront with its spacey grooves and Prince tendencies, then rewards closer listeners with an excellent collection of thought pieces to provoke and to relate with.

Dunes is out now through Secretly Canadian on CD and vinyl. If you want to hear more, the record is temporarily streaming in full over at Hype Machine. Gardens & Villa have announced a tour in support of Dunes and are planning on stopping at Barboza on March 25. Tickets are not yet available.

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