In less than six months, Ducks Ltd. followed their debut, the seven-track Get Bleak, with full-length Modern Fiction. The back-to-back releases show a clear and promising development while also alluding to the abundance of music that seems ever-present in the band’s jangly corner of indie rock niche. Modern Fiction rattles off excellently consistent nuggets of buoyant chime that, while not especially novel, consolidate much of the best aspects of that niche.
More contemporary-minded fans will easily follow the sparkly guitars, melodic bass, and propulsive, almost-real drum machines to similarly-minded acts like Beach Fossils, Alvvays, and The Drums. Ducks Ltd. looks further back to titans of indie rock’s cardigan-wearing sect, and it’s easy to trace those through lines. The sheaths of bright guitars collaboratively concocted by Tom McGreevy and Evan Lewis connect the Toronto duo to Johnny Marr and a legion of Smiths followers. Broadly speaking, the band pulls from the ‘perfect pop’ formula of Sarah Records and the more shambolic, Velvet Underground–inspired sounds of New Zealand’s influential Flying Nun label.
The contrast of bubbly, almost joyous music with dreary lyrical quips marks a key part of Ducks Ltd.’s style—and another strong tie to the world of Smiths’ offspring. The speedy “Under the Rolling Moon” catalogs time spent sitting both in the rain and alone in a bedroom. “Always There,” propelled by some of the hookiest bass lines on an album that specializes in them, opens with images of “rumpled, gray-faced alcoholics.” Even at the shimmering closing, “Grand Final Day,” McGreevy laments that things are “not quite the way we had dreamt all this was gonna turn out.”
If Ducks Ltd.’s homages to other artists comes off a little strong, its still one of the better interpretations of the style in recent times. The jangling guitars may not be eye-opening, but they are quite delightful. And the consistent punch of the rhythm section—the pair splits guitar and bass duties while Lewis tends to drum programming and McGreevy manages vocals and keyboards—keeps the energy high throughout. Ducks Ltd.’s debut feels like a mere warm up in comparison.
A few tendencies emerge. Several of Modern Fiction‘s best tracks utilize string arrangements to bring just a little more soaring drama and sentimentality to the productions. It works. “Fit to Burst,” “Always There,” and “’twere Ever Thus” are among the beneficiaries—”18 Cigarettes,” perhaps the album’s strongest track, is a notable exception. McGreevy’s vocal melodies, which bear some lilting resemblance to The Go-Betweens’ Grant McLennan, have comfort zones and rehash some similar ideas throughout. While not exactly a problem, it does weigh down the scope of potential for an already fairly formulized band.
The drum programming gives off a charming sense of irrationalism. While not overtly strange, there’s a persistent feeling that they’re almost too consistent. The incessant kick drum patterns on “How Lonely Are You?,” “Fit to Burst,” and “’twere Ever Thus” further emphasize the artificial nature. At the same time, that unfailing pulse helps to propel Ducks Ltd. toward a more upbeat and modern sound.
But still, one wonders: what drummer would play such similar rhythms with such mechanic precision for 30 minutes straight? It is perhaps irrational. But, then again, how rational is it to be playing this little niche genre barely remembered enough to be forgotten? Or to even be playing guitar music at all, now an ancient history in the face of pop present? And yet, Ducks Ltd., like so many others, persist. In the face of it all, the band is jubilant—over darkness, over loneliness. McGreevy and Lewis may play with tropes and templates developed decades before and continued plentiful abundance today, but they do so knowingly, willingly, and committedly.