Album Review: Gardens & Villa - Music For Dogs

Album Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra

The future is cold. It's a lifeless and impeccably chrome place where imperfection is sought after and annihilated. Evolution has been replaced with a "Refresh" key on your keyboard. The modern world sits still in front of a screen waiting for another notification to pop up, telling us that there is something else out there, waiting for us to experience. With a single click, this new facet of information can be expounded into enjoyment. It's a Pavlovian experiment for the digital age.

This is the world that Gardens & Villa explore on their new album, Music For Dogs. It's a world without much certainty. Crowdsourcing is the only surefire pathway to a definitive answer. White noise fills the space between one place and the next. And all our preconceived ideas of love, identity, and human relations are filtered through an efficiency matrix to market a product and guarantee reaction. And yet, despite the coldness of it all, we feed off of it. The binary waves ignite impulses in the brain and we feel at home in it all. Over 37 minutes, Garden & Villa give us a day in this brave new world of Los Angeles, where we struggle to retain our humanity in an increasingly digital age. To do so, they enlist an eclectic, post-modern body of sounds all centered in electronic exploration and uncertainty. Ranging from the proto-punk of the Stooges to the ambient musings of Brian Eno, Gardens & Villa assemble a collage of analog production to soundtrack their dystopian odyssey. It's an intentional and invigorating shout into the ever-increasing digital void - it's music for the dogs.

From the warm Santa Barbara nights of the band's debut, to the freezing cold Midwestern winter that cast a shadow on Dunes, location has always helped tell a story on Gardens & Villa records. The daily circumstance from which they have derived the cyberpunk world of Music For Dogs is perhaps the most telling example we have: present day Los Angeles. Primary writers Chris Lynch and Adam Rasmussen moved from Santa Barbara to the industrial Frog Town district of Los Angeles, banding together with a collective of local artists to refurbish a vacant warehouse and convert it into a livable space. The whole story of the move is fascinating (read about it in interviews here and here) and plays massively into the ideas presented herein. Even in the most intimate of living quarters with more than a dozen likeminded individuals, the new world of human interaction feels lonely. Our minds are only half-present at any given time. We are both in and out love constantly.

Throughout the record, the band is keenly aware of the new politics of living simultaneously in and out of the digital world. The album opens with "Maximize Results", a frantic, paranoid love song for the modern day, in which love is pursued through waves of static under the watchful eye of the television. "Fixations" depicts sensory overload as a set of blips on a radar screen, jumping from one gaping distraction to another in an instant. "Express" gives emotion a time-space coordinate, exploring the millennial obsession with documentation and constant existence in the past. Then, "General Research" combines all of the above into the allegory of blog culture, and how much of our search for happiness and fulfillment comes from an accelerating need for stimulation, every time "breaking the mold" until the next fixation comes along.

The relationships we are left with in the wake of these politics are strange and impersonal. On "Everybody", Gardens explore the dynamic of being impossibly interconnected and yet further apart from your loved ones than ever. Image-driven comparative living is dissected heavily on "Paradise", where a picturesque lifestyle is dreamed up on what we all know to be out there through the filtered photos of friends and acquaintances alike. "Alone In A City" follows this idea with increasing alienation amongst a multitude of people, feeling less and less a person in a sea of flashing lights. And as we become more of a profile and a set of characteristics and an option and less a living breathing human being, our loves grow stranger. On "Happy Times", a tangled, shallow love triangle mistakes love for stimulation under the cool of the moonlight. Then the penultimate "Jubilee" offers a hypothesis amidst the discord of the previous eight songs. This is the new face of the youth and the existence we have chosen - there must be something in the air. After all, inclusion at any cost must always be the best answer.

Music For Dogs finds its resolve and solace on the last track of the record. "I Already Do" finds the band realizing the distance between loved ones as we prioritize collection to compassion. "They say to live for today", a concept that seems harder and harder to grasp as we live in a world of legacy and time hops and preservation above all else. The human touch is the only one that is truly life giving and it's this love that makes and breaks us that is truly worth living for. Beyond all of the static, beyond all of the noise and the notifications, it's love that gets us through. It's this facet that separates music for the dogs from music for the heart.

Gardens & Villa continue riding the wave of digital digestion that bands like Arcade Fire and St. Vincent have been toying with over the last couple years. But unlike their predecessors, Gardens aren't trying to make some grandiose point about this generation and it's piss-poor use of technology to distract themselves into oblivion. Instead, Music For Dogs invites us into a fantasy world that falls into the uncanny valley of looking just a bit too real for comfort. The album's cover simultaneously nods to the past and the future with its Japanese script along the left binding. Is it a nod to the import LP packaging of the likes T. Rex and John Lennon? Or is it a Blade Runner-esque prediction of cultural integration yet to come in the future? The filtered-to-oblivion photo in the center seems to nod closer to the latter. Gardens & Villa are walking around this new digital world just as confused as the rest of us, trying to make the best of an impossible situation. As we step into the shoes of the narrator, stumbling in and out of dive bar and house party alike across East LA, we have to beg the question: what's left when nothing is new anymore? What's left when the impulse loses its power? Music For Dogs is all the more effective in its conscious choice not to try and answer the question. With their third full-length, Gardens & Villa pull the shiny skin back from the world around us and write songs about the sickly social experiment on the inside. Pay attention and you might learn something about yourself along the way.

Music For Dogs is out this week on Secretly Canadian. Grab it at your local record store on CD or vinyl. Gardens & Villa will tour this fall in support of the new record, making a stop at the Crocodile in Seattle on November 16. Grab tickets here.

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