There’s something about the 70s that has gripped so many facets of artistic expression across the board. Be it the New Hollywood filmmakers adding a gritty realism to a stagnant studio sound stage system, or the embellishment of fusing musical genres, the 70s were an exciting decade to be an artist. Lately, many musicians have been revisiting the great albums of the 70s for inspiration. Some of the results have been outstanding, some abysmal, and quite a few have landed in the middle. Gardens & Villa’s new release, Music for Dogs, falls somewhere in the middle. This is not to say that the album doesn’t have something; to the contrary, I have the distinct feeling that whatever their follow-up may be will knock Music for Dogs out of the water.
Musically, the 70s influence is very clear, with song arrangements providing a catchy pop hook while maintaining a bit of decisive instrumental mystique. It evokes not only the frantically exciting experience of living in Los Angeles, but also prods at, with simple clarity, the overwhelming isolation that occurs there. After getting past the immediate hook of “Maximize Results”, a catchy indie electro/rock number, it launches into the emotional pitfalls around every corner. “Fixations” (a little bit nail-on-the-head lyrically to the title) and “Everybody” speak about battling the isolating factors of drug dependency and emotional dependency; the latter, in particular, sneers at how easy it is for people to talk first and act never: “Everybody wants the new you/Nobody cares who you are/Taking pictures of the new you/Watching you from afar”.
To say that Music for Dogs is a Los Angeles record is no understatement. The lyrics evoke all of the isolating factors of Los Angeles consistently, right down to the titles, sometimes bluntly and sometimes via metaphor. Perhaps most poignantly is “Paradise” telling a story about longing to capture that ever elusive dream that brings most creative people to the city: “Waterloo sunset/Surgery on my life/Rivers filled with nothing when the clouds run dry/Staring off/Throw my arms up as we’re driving by.” There’s an overarching story to the album about “trying to make it” while simultaneously fighting isolation. Little descriptions of the frustrations that accompany the struggle to be seen and be heard while simultaneously maintaining one’s own identity and self are rife in songs like “Alone in the City” and “General Research”. When Chris Lynch lets loose on the former, proclaiming, “This place is a nightmare/When I can’t be right there in your arms/I’ve been dreaming of it/Sweet dreaming all my life” he’s trying to break free of his self-imposed isolation; “General Research” then launches into that trapped feeling of routine: “Searching through the blogs/Cultural modulation/Music for the Dogs/Following down the rabbit hole/Breaking the mold”. Anyone who lives in Los Angeles in the entertainment industry knows these feelings and struggles. That doesn’t make it any less sincere, mind you, but it doesn’t make it any less obvious either.
So, why does it fall somewhere in the middle? It’s not exactly something new to recognize that Los Angeles is a very large, imposing, exciting, and isolating city. However, Music for Dogs, despite all of its ham-fisted titles and lyrics, is still a musically interesting album, owing influence to a number of greats while still maintaining a personal intensity that is rather uncommon in a world that is increasingly oversaturated by synthesizers. Perhaps it’s because they approach the synth use in the same way that Blondie, Bowie, and Eno did in that time period that ultimately saves the record. All the hooks of a good record are there, and the record is good, but it’s not entirely memorable. Certainly stand out tracks are “Fixations”, “Everybody”, “Alone in the City”, and “General Research”, which is more than most overplayed radio music can offer on one album. While not one of those “great” records, it’s definitely a good and worthwhile album. I can only hope that whatever they follow Music for Dogs with is a knock out.