If you have a chance to see Gardens & Villa in concert, the lasting impression will undoubtably involve someone yelling from the audience for lead singer Chris Lynch to “play his flutes.” Dirty as this may sound, it is in fact a literal request for the frontman to pick from his backpack of wooden flutes, as he often does, and to serenade the crowd like some kind of biblical shepherd. It’s novel and it’s unnecessary, as the band replicates the flute sounds for the moments where Lynch is too busy singing, and these combine to make it kind of awesome. I mean, how often do you hear someone yell “play your flutes”?
On record, as Gardens & Villa discover about two songs in to their debut self-titled LP, simple pleasures are, well, not so simple. Without a bag of flutes to hide behind, the Santa Barbara five-piece (sidenote: is Gardens & Villa the most appropriate name for a Santa Barbara band ever?) are left with only their songs to protect them, and, for the most part, the music withstands some trying production and a little too much funk to reveal study structures of melody and wonder, portraying a band still learning how to mesh with each-other, and who will undoubtably find that over-complicating things is never a smart choice.
Take album opener, “Black Hills.” On the album’s strongest track, everything is pushed to minimal levels, allowing Lynch’s falsetto to set the tone for the tune’s subtleties – the consistent, pulsing synth line, the steady drum-stick clicks, and the ultimate singalong chorus. “Star Fire Power” also uses its understated sonic qualities for its advantage, backed by a barely-there tremolo bass line and building to a lovely mingling of instruments that convince the listener that all the space and mystery was worth it. “Carrizo Plain” needs even less, sounding like the memory of a song, sung from down a long hallway from a decade before, where everything is in sepia tone.
And where at their best, Gardens & Villa may recall the harmonies of Local Natives and the hazy qualities of The Walkmen, they are clearly not (yet) at the level of either of those bands. Missteps include the Beverly Hills Cop-ish “Cruise Ship” and the goofy “Spacetime,” which comes off a lot better live where it loses the Peter Schilling-“Major Tom” element. But, the faults of the album are easily forgivable, as they all seem to operate in the realm of a band getting its sea legs and are all performed in good fun. Having twice seen the ear to ear grin that Lynch holds across his face while he performs, it is clear that the group is not taking themselves too seriously, and thus, it feels kind of wrong for the audience to do so. What we can hope for is a better middle ground, like cut “Thorn Castles,” which manages to catch some of the cheese of Gardens & Villa’s less proud moments, while ditching the ill-advised funk. Moments like this leave Gardens & Villa seeming like a better album that it probably is, where it is easier to like it than it is to criticize it, and where the listener understands the better music is probably still to come. Until then, we have the flutes.