Ducktails began as Real Estate guitarist Matt Mondanile’s outlet for his exploratory, predominantly instrumental solo experiments. Of the years, however, it’s become less of a recreational side-project and more of a proper band, with an emphasis on full-bodied arrangements and pristinely clean jangle-pop.
Which is to say that, at times, St. Catherine sounds a hell of a lot like Real Estate. Songs like “Headbanging in the Mirror,” “St. Catherine” and “Surreal Exposure” mix sleepy acoustic strums with wobbly, watery guitar arpeggios and breathy hooks, meaning that could easily be slotted into the tracklist of last year’s Atlas and sound right at home. Of these cuts, “Headbanging in the Mirror” is a particular standout, as Mondanile delivers ultra-personal lyrics about his recent relocation to the West Coast: “In my late twenties, I flew to L.A. / Born in New Jersey, I drive on the highway.”
These are the best songs on the album, which could be considered either a good thing or a bad thing: on the one hand, these solid tunes are sure to please Real Estate fans, and they capitalize on Mondanile’s knack for setting a dreamy mood with his nimble, spidery riffs; on the other hand, they don’t set St. Catherine apart as much other that a stopgap release for those waiting on the next Real Estate record.
There are a few songs here that hint at slightly more adventurous stylistic terrain: in particular, “The Laughing Woman” shifts the songwriter’s hazy pop style into a psychedelic, keyboard-rich direction, while “Church” employs predominantly electronic instrumentation and features a lovely vocal cameo from Julia Holter. Far less successful is the cloyingly sweet “Heaven’s Room,” which is laden with schmaltzy strings.
The LP is bookended by a few instrumental compositions that recall Ducktails’ early work, although these don’t accomplish much other than making the album a rather muddled, unfocused effort. They leave listeners with the impression that, while St. Catherine is pleasant and pretty, Mondanile is going to need to make a more decisive sonic statement if he’s ever going to emerge from out of the shadow of Real Estate.
Review by Alex Hudson