At first glance, it’s hard to draw a straight line from Matt Mondanile’s early work as Ducktails — the loopy, homemade instrumentals of his self-titled 2009 debut — to The Flower Lane, a smoothed-out, largely traditional guitar-pop album. Maybe the more shimmering, languid indie guitar stuff he plays as a member of Real Estate has affected Mondanile’s sensibilities. Certainly there are elements of the buoyant indie-pop of fellow New Jersey-ians Big Troubles, who are the core backing band on The Flower Lane. In a 2010 interview with self-titled, Mondanile tips his hand about his approach to making music as Ducktails, explaining, “…I wanted it to sound kind of like it was coming from the past — like an imaginary cartoon band from the past that plays memory rock music that makes you nostalgic, and that’s kind of like my whole thing. It hasn’t really evolved that much from there.” Actually, maybe the techniques have evolved — Flower Lane is the first Ducktails album recorded in a professional recording studio — but the worn-in, tweaked-jukebox feel of Mondanile’s music is the subtle, rewarding thread running throughout all his records.
The Flower Lane, from the start, is pristine and sweet. The ultra-clean, strummy stroll of album opener “Ivy Covered House” is followed by the title track, a slightly syrupy, swinging ballad with some gooey keyboards and hushed, lilting vocals. The album isn’t rote indie-pop, though — Mondanile has a keen sense for slyly unexpected chord changes and fractured arrangements. Flower Lane is an unapologetically melodic album, but also successfully mines the off-kilter sensibilities of sophisticated pop mavens like Cleaners from Venus’s Martin Newell and Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame. “Timothy Shy” is a largely-straightforward, bouncy piano-led romp with a left-turn chorus of chiming guitars and syncopated drums that sounds quite like Ariel Pink, one of Mondanile’s inspirations, minus the misanthropic menace. As The Flower Lane continues, you can continue to play spot-the-influence (New Zealand indie!, Prefab Sprout!) but it’s more rewarding to listen as a whole and realize that Mondanile’s fanciful “imaginary cartoon band” has come to life and produced a set of distinct, idiosyncratic, wonderful songs.