There aren’t many bands like Ducks Ltd. (formerly known as Ducks Unlimited) around anymore. That’s it, that’s the pitch. Just kidding, Ducks Ltd. are excellent because their music transcends genre, time, and space. After releasing an expanded reissue of their debut EP, Get Bleak, in May this year, the pair – Tom McGreevy (vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards) and Evan Lewis (guitar, bass, drum programming) – prioritised lively music and warmth with self-aware critiques of living under capitalism. The duo later somehow managed to release their debut album, Modern Fiction. At the same time, McGreevy was in Toronto and Lewis in his native Australia, unable to travel anywhere due to COVID-19 and Australia’s harsh border closures.
Spending time in the mountains of Victoria’s Macedon Ranges, Lewis enlisted producer James Cecil (Architecture in Helsinki, The Goon Sax) to nail down the album’s final additions, such as a string quartet on “Fit to Burst,” “Always There,” “Sullen Leering Hope,” “‘Twere Ever Thus,” and “Grand Final Day.” Modern Fiction is bright and celebrates friendship between bouts of depression. “I’m dumb as shit, yet I persist/Hauling it in, holding the doubt,” McGreevy sings on “How Lonely Are You,” featuring Carpark Records labelmates The Beths (who appear a few times on the album), laying his typical day-to-day bleak mindset bare for the world to see. While his words are gloomy, the songs themselves are anything but: this is pure jangle-pop. Think R.E.M. or The B-52s, fellow Aussies Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever or a group Lewis is obsessed with, The Servants. Ducks Ltd. takes cues from each band to write plaintive lyrics and contrasts them with jubilant, melodic pop-rock tunes.
There is plenty to love on Modern Fiction, and it flies by at just 29 minutes. On “Grand Final Day,” Ducks Ltd. capture the feeling of missing out. The Australian Football League hosted the big game in Perth while Melbourne and Western Bulldogs FC fans watched from home. Lewis explains the rules to McGreevy without much luck. While families remain separated via borders and oceans, it’s a powerful closer that effectively contrasts against more self-absorbed ruminations littered all over the record. “Awake on Grand Final Day, not quite the way we had dreamt all this was gonna turn out/While 10,000 miles away St. Kilda’s played off the ground,” McGreevy croons. Anyone who has just experienced Grand Final Day away from family and friends for the second year in a row knows exactly how that feels.
Modern Fiction is no Murmur, but it seizes a bizarre moment in time that needs jangle-pop to soundtrack the weight of this hour. I am a massive fan of the juxtaposition between melancholic lyrics and danceable melodies when it’s pulled off like this. This compelling musical combination shouldn’t work, and yet it does. It draws me back to Paramore’s After Laughter, R.E.M., and now Modern Fiction. Each song blends into the next, and for once, I have no qualms about that. It feels nice to nod my head to riffs, point out the Australian influence, and forget about the outside world for half an hour. While Ducks Ltd. examines personal grief and the fall of our society as we know it, there is hope, for McGreevy’s admiration for human resilience outweighs his cynicism: “A quality I don’t always see in myself and really appreciate in others is the courage to go on.”