Danelectro’s Grilled Cheese is a flimsy, mustard-yellow effects pedal that swallows up any signal fed into it and spits out a drenched, wobbly fuzz on the other end. It’s a very ’90s-centric distortion style brings to mind Superdrag’s Regretfully Yours and even the Sundays’ Static & Silence. The pedal itself was cheap and its sound abrasive, but hearing it again on the opening guitar riff of Gardens & Villa’s “Echosassy” conjures up warm memories nonetheless. The band’s sophomore effort, Dunes, is filled with those kind of wry, nostalgic moments. In many ways, the album is a sort of dark twin to Ducktails’ The Flower Lane, similarly enchanted with the imagery of youth, but filtered through a dirtier lens.
Dunes’s success with off-kilter new wave can be credited to producer Tim Goldsworthy, who lent Cut Copy’s In Ghost Colours much of its disco-cum-synth-pop charisma. Goldsworthy has built a stratum of battered, creaky atmosphere atop Gardens & Villa’s already richly layered mood. Drumpads are tinny, synths crackle, and instrumentation is, in general, thin and cold, but resulting in a kind of exquisite, bittersweet decrepitude that suggests Gardens & Villa has a soft spot for old tape decks and barely functioning analog equipment. The grease-laden flutes that drive the melody of “Domino,” for instance, seem born from within a dusty old Casio, while “Purple Mesas” is a hazy swirl of snapping percussion and drunken electric piano, the kind of mood music a teenager might put on during a clumsy bedroom make-out session.
In fact, it’s mostly failed come-ons that serve as the album’s narrative content. Dunes is equally sad and sexual, the diary of some mournful lothario hitting an existential crisis, where the worn production is mixed with imagery of urban nightlife and hollow sexcapades. “Echosassy” unfolds like a lonely john’s confessions between parked-car sex sessions, while the falsetto-kissed “Bullet Train” boasts a chorus that could describe a teenager’s view of L.A.: “The young die young, if they work too hard/Palm silhouettes, magnetic rails to the stars.” As “Love Theme” finally bleeds in, playing like the soundtrack to Ice Castles on a wobbling turntable, it’s clear that Dunes is essentially a disillusioned adult’s perspective on the idealism of their halcyon days—notions about love and life now seen as no more than a set of shaky assumptions. Set in this context of youth, Dunes’s realizations are made even more heart-wrenching, playing as if piped out of a pair of old, yellowing speakers in a forsaken, dimly lit arcade.