By Jason Shoff
Indie rock sure does love the ‘80s right now. Well, at least that’s the vibe I get from the spattering of new releases I’ve heard this year, anyway. Now there really isn’t anything wrong with that; the decade did produce some timeless, classic music after all, as well as some of the greatest one hit wonders and pop hits of all-time. But at the same time, it also produced some of the most cringe-worthy production techniques in recorded music history, from reverb that made drums sound like they were recorded in the middle of the Grand Canyon to a wide variety of horrid synth sounds that were cheesy at best and ear-piercing at worst.
Yet such bands as Unknown Mortal Orchestra, The War on Drugs and Tame Impala are discovering that some of these techniques actually have value and merit, and are taking these sounds (and the general “idea” of ‘80s music) and incorporating them into their own writing. Yet whereas these bands are using these styles to create a unique blend of rock, pop and R&B, Gardens & Villa’s latest album, Music for Dogs, is more like a time machine designed to take you back to a specific era, particularly the New Romantic scene that flourished in the early part of the decade. Its goal seems to be to emulate the artists and sounds of the decade that you love, and for the most part, they succeed in their efforts.
After an intro that literally sounds like your speakers are malfunctioning (or slowly turning into a plane engine), “Maximize Results” gives listeners a pretty good idea of what there in for. Complete with hand claps, Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano and manic synths, it sounds like it could be the theme song for an '80s action-adventure flick starring Bruce Willis. “Fixations,” by comparison, is a bit more fun, a vintage glam rocker that’s basically what a collaboration between Marc Bolan and Hall and Oates would probably sound like (spoiler alert: awesome).
After spending its first few songs in pop-rock territory, “Everybody” is essentially electronic cabaret music, its bar-room piano and flanged guitar making it sound like a hybrid of Elton John and Tainted Cell. Following track “Paradise” begins with what sounds like a recording of the faint sound of a drum machine playing in the next room. Piano and organ then slowly trickle into the mix before that classic ‘80s sound of mystical wind chimes takes us back into the New Romantic era of new wave, sounding for all the world like a lost ABC track.
Gardens & Villa then take us into a bit more abrasive territory (well, as abrasive as ‘80s pop can be, anyway) with “Alone in the City.” With its distorted synth and drum machine sounds, it’s a track that could have fit comfortably on an album like the Jesus & Mary Chain’s Psychocandy. Things get even more tense with “General Research,” its pulsating guitar, hypnotic beat and blippy synths returning us to the realm of 80s theme music, this time sounding like the result of a spy movie as scored by Duran Duran (a movie that I imagine would be a Cold War thriller involving stolen top secret nuclear program documents). Then we go straight into pastiche territory with “Express,” a second cousin of “Der Kommissar” that’s the closest any song on here comes to sounding like a direct sound-alike.
Thankfully the band gives us a chance to wind down after all that string of intense tunes with “Happy Times,” which is basically what you would get if you took “Puttin' on the Ritz” and injected it with a heavy dose of yacht rock (in fact, I was totally picturing myself sailing in a lagoon somewhere off the coast of Hawaii while drinking a piña colada while listening to this). On the total opposite end of the spectrum, “Jubilee” sounds like they decided to cram every single industrial-sounding drum loop that they could find and put it into one track, which makes for a particularly jarring listen, especially since it’s sandwiched between “Happy Times” and the melodic album closer “I Already Do.” With its jaunty piano and Ringo Starr-esque drum fills, it sounds like a lost number from a classic Broadway musical, which makes it a fitting end to an album that makes the listener feel like it’s taken us on a similar whimsical journey.
At the end of the day, Music for Dogs is a record that essentially puts the 80s in a blender to create a record that sounds like a greatest hits compilation from an alternate universe. Sure, you could play “spot the influence” throughout (as I did in this review), and it doesn’t really break any ground musically, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less charming, enjoyable or lacking in the songwriting department. In fact, Gardens & Villa have created a highly entertaining album that takes the best elements of ‘80s pop music and consolidates them into a strong batch of catchy, hook-laden songs. For those that are loving this trend in indie music and are looking for more albums like it, make Music for Dogs your next purchase.
Gardens and Villa kick off their tour for Music for Dogs in Phoenix on September 15th at Crescent Ballroom. So if this album sounds like it’s your cup of tea, mark your calendar now.