The spiraling space-funk at the heart of Gardens & Villa’s Dunes could only be called “Echosassy.” The album’s fifth track is the mesmerizing template for Gardens & Villa’s sound, a synth-rock that knows its history, with more than a subtle allegiance to the sci-fi notion of retro-futurism.
Cycles of taste have slowly brought the synthesizer back as a dominating trend in rock music, from the neo-disco of Arcade Fire’s latest to throw-back goth and surf rock. Dunes is new new-wave that sits somewhere in the middle, as smooth and slinky as the band’s freshly minted term “echosassy” would suggest.
The press materials for Dunes push the idea of a band out of its place, recording at the retro-themed Key Club in a frigid Benton Harbor, Michigan on a “Sly Stone’s original custom-built Flickinger recording console.” The studio is the vessel, while outside, snow-covered sand dunes stretch expansively, surreal in their emptiness. Fittingly, this sense of dislocation and solitude runs through the album’s lyrics.
Picturing the band as explorers, seated at a highly functioning but very clearly vintage console, helps make it easier to settle into the album’s grooves. There’s an “echosassy” 80s vibe throughout, but with an aura of science fiction. The party, like the landscape outside the studio, feels like a relic, frozen in time. Dunes mood blends enthusiasm with uneasiness, energy with loneliness, with front man Chris Lynch unsheathing an eerie falsetto on top of the fat, rolling synth grooves.
Dunes treads a narrow path through that snow, taking pains to avoid the dangers lurking in the drifts on both sides. Gardens & Villa borrow only sparingly from the dark realms of goth or pre-industrial bands like Siouxsie & The Banshees and Depeche Mode or from the overly dance-first version employed by too many one-hit wonders to count. What the band does lean on, perhaps too much, are disembodied flute melodies, their signature sound.
Dunes also reveals the degree to which the band’s 2011’s self-titled debut reflected the eccentricities of producer Richard Swift. Now that they are working with DFA Records’ Tim Goldsworthy (whose producing credits include Cut Copy, The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem,) Gardens & Villa sound more focused. There isn’t necessarily more synthesizer on Dunes, but it has a more prominent and compelling role. Here, it’s emphasis; there it was accent.
Their eponymous debut album’s “Orange Blossom” could be Grandaddy with a different front man, while “Space Time” and “Chemtrails” are nearly onomatopoetic titlez songs that are quite simply “out there,” with lyrics of starlight shivers and marmalade skies.
Dunes, on the other hand, deploys its synths in a more retro and oddly conventional way, more often than not letting them settle in as the bed of a song. Whether it’s an evolution the band learned touring for some 350 shows in the last two years, or one teased out by Goldsworthy, it clearly makes for a stronger and more alive Gardens & Villa.
Album opener “Domino” establishes the marriage of flute and synth immediately, a bouncing and skittering track that mostly serves as a warm-up for the one-two punch of singles “Colony Glenn” and “Bullet Train,” edgy, pulsating songs that are also the album’s catchiest.
Lyrically, “Colony Glenn” and “Bullet Train” both deal with disorienting changes and shifts, the idea of fleeting lives hang hauntingly over both. On “Bullet Train,” Lynch sings of burnt-out young lives, those who worked too hard taking “magnetic rails to the stars,” another clear nod to retro-futurist thinking.
The record stumbles a bit with some sleepy dream pop in its second half, but even that contrast with its more bold and forceful tracks works in Gardens & Villa’s favor. The solitude in a piano-driven song like “Minnesota” sounds pensive and comforting compared to the hectic pace of life in the “echosassy” realm.
Like the sci-fi notions that inspired it, synth-rock is now decades old and near-endlessly varied, split into sub-genres and categories by lines too fine to matter. Gardens & Villa reach back and look forward, without worrying about such hair-splitting, in order to find the band’s creative voice. They don’t really sound like anyone else, which is an impressive compliment in an era of self-conscious homages – see Daft Punk – and shameless recycling of hitmakers’ formulas.