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Unfurling out of Los Angeles this July comes St. Catherine, Matt Mondanile’s fifth outing as Ducktails. The new album emerges from the roots of Mondanile's previous work, from the free-form, ambient bedroom experiments of seminal underground release Landscapes (2009), to 2013's eighties pop re-imagination The Flower Lane, but ultimately moves Ducktails on to a more refined, personal and sincere place.
St. Catherine is a finely-honed collection of baroque pop songs that take the blissful, cascading melodic fretwork that Mondanile has made his signature with both Ducktails and his other band, Real Estate, and applies it to songs of considerable new emotional heft and dynamic range.
A seeking meditation on the sensation of love, from its initial growth to eventual dissolution, St. Catherine sees Mondanile seek to project these most universal pop themes through the prism of a keen interest in the beauty and sacred aspects of the Catholic church he's harboured since his childhood altar boy days. The result is fittingly romantic, mysterious and celestial - a dizzying, awe-struck listen replete with strange lyrical images and seductive melodies that are alluring and foreboding in equal measure.
The title St. Catherine is a reference to St. Catherine of Alexandria, the saint of knowledge and virtue who was condemned by mortal men for devoting herself to Christ, an act of faith that at the time was seen as a type of dangerous lunacy. "The title track, St. Catherine, is about being blinded by light", says Mondanile of the record's central metaphor, "It's about throwing yourself into a revery, regardless of the consequences."
Mondanile partially wrote and recorded St. Catherine over the course of 2014 and then finished off recording at the start of 2015. The longest time he has ever spent working on a record, it took place in bedrooms and studios predominantly in east LA and Glendale, but venturing as far as Berlin and New York as Mondanile worked on tracks around heavy periods of Real Estate touring.
When Mondanile finally settled back in LA at the start of 2015, it was Rob Scnapf, co-producer of Elliott Smith's classic albums XO and Either/Or, that he turned to in order to help put the finishing touches to St. Catherine. Together, the pair added a new crispness and punch to the record's more upbeat, psychedelic pop tracks (such as James Ferraro-featuring, lolloping lead single "Headbanging In The Mirror", and the soaring "Into The Sky"), that recalls the artful muscularity of Smith's later work, whilst title track, the heavenly "St. Catherine" boasts one of Mondanile's greatest ever lead guitar lines and benefits greatly from Schnapf's warm, rich feel.
Where St. Catherine impresses even moreso, however, is when Mondanile steps out of his comfort zone, as he does frequently and with great success. The Julia Holter-featuring "Church" and "Heaven's Room", tracks which see Mondanile flex his muscles as a composer and arranger, introducing complex, interlocking vocal harmonies, gorgeously sweeping string parts (provided by Andrew Tholl and Christopher Votex) and a host of off-kilter electronic elements into his sonic palate - channeling the likes of Broadcast, and Stereolab but with a younger wide eyed sensibility.
“Dark pop,” Shana Falana calls it, when pressed for a genre. On Here Comes the Wave, the veteran of the Brooklyn and San Francisco undergrounds deals in paradoxes and oppositions: drones stormy and serene, layers of warmth streaked with wildness and troubled riffs, ethereal forces at war and at play. The duality runs deep in the record’s unlikely birth story as well.
In the winter of 2006, Shana lost half of her index finger in a workplace elevator accident in New York City. On the passenger seat of her car that morning—when the shoegaze/psychedelic songwriter was pulled over (and let go) with expired California plates and no insurance—sat cassette tapes of Django Reinhardt and Jerry Garcia, two guitarists famous for adapting to missing or damaged fingers in the pursuit of their art.
Themes of synchronicity, and gain born from loss, recur throughout the story and the record. Shana grappled with addiction and wrote furiously following the accident and this burst of driven productivity, a decade later, accounts for half of the potent, transformational songs on Here Comes the Wave. “Somehow, I knew those songs would serve me well later,” says the long-sober and creatively disciplined Shana Falana. The emotional turmoil of addiction seethes through the unstable sludge and fuzz of “Lie 2 Me,” but in the light and buoyant psychedelia of “Cloudbeats,” Shana hears the call of her own recovery, several years before it actually began.
Luminous, wise, and empathetic new songs comprise the other half of Here Comes the Wave, forming a dialogue between selves across a great expanse of time and personal transformation. On the single, “Cool Kids” she delivers an ethereal message of acceptance to her younger self and to all young people disfigured by social pressures, driven to addiction, marginalized by gender and racial identities. On the record’s cover, a polaroid self-portrait Falana took long before “selfie” was a word is artfully streaked and defaced by artist Carla Rozman.
Here Comes the Wave is Shana Falana’s second collaboration in as many years with producer D. James Goodwin (Bob Weir, Whitney, Kevin Morby) and long-time partner and drummer Mike Amari, both of whom play a larger role here than on 2015’s Set Your Lightning Fire Free. As is their way, Shana and friends trusted the material and their process, recording and arranging quickly, layering generously, going for audacious sounds and heightened moments. They had reason to be bold going into this record; the last one had been featured in the television series American Horror Story and generously affirmed by Pitchfork, Village Voice, Stereogum and others.
Themes of maturity and closure abound: letting go of youth (and eulogizing her native San Fransciso’s D.I.Y scene in the exquisite “Castle Kids”); coming to terms with the death of her father and of a musical hero and father figure in Lou Reed, whose song “Ocean” closes the record with a gradual wash of clarity, acceptance and affirmation.