It probably goes without saying that Gardner’s original material is strongly influenced by the Beatles, and one look at his home setup is enough to let you know he’s modeled his musical pursuits after one-man-band artists like Todd Rundgren. But any music geek knows that acts who wish they were the Fab Four (or wizards, true Todds) are a dime a dozen; it takes a fan’s love to emulate the form of those classic records, but you need true songwriting craft to puzzle out their function, and Gardner’s got both: Adventures in Real Time gets my unqualified vote for the most purely entertaining pop record of 2014 (so far).
I don’t give that kind of praise lightly, and in all honesty, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to find good reasons not to love Adventures as much as I do. The kind of pop Gardner traffics in has been badly mistreated over the last 15-20 years, relegated to Poptopia compilations or shrugged off by skinny tie-sporting posers who try to derive the “power” part of the equation through cluttered production and ironic Moogs instead of smart songwriting, and it’s easy to assume that Gardner’s extreme youth would prevent him from pulling off much more than a skillful imitation of the really good stuff. But Adventures in Real Time really is the good stuff.
Simply put, this is one hell of an accomplished debut. If Gardner’s occasionally guilty of wearing his influences a little too enthusiastically on his sleeve (the record’s first lines are “I’ll be John and you be Yoko”) and there’s a puppyish eagerness to the aggressively layered production, the overall effect is more ingratiating than irritating. Gardner’s energy is infectious, and no matter how hard these arrangements push the line between clever and cluttered, they never let you forget that there are honest-to-God songs keeping things anchored under all the oohs, aahs, and handclaps. You can tell they were built from the ground up rather than bloated out as a misguided means to an end.
And again: Gardner’s just getting started. It’s hard to imagine how a kid in his position will be able to make a living at this, but artists like Dylan Gardner are exactly why we should all be pulling for the streaming economy to find a balance between supply and demand. He’s clearly got more to say; here’s hoping we all get to keep listening in on his journey.