I saw the frenetic, walloping art-rockers Ava Luna for the first time on a more or less uneventful Valentine’s Day night at a Bushwick venue called The Ho_se, which was more or less a house. The bands performed in the corner of a gutted living room on the ground floor; the ceilings so low that one patron (a more or less typical hipster with the exception of his five-inch stiletto heels) was unable to stand upright. The night presented a litany of noise-pop and garage-rock, acts blurring into one another with each successive jack and coke. Then headliners Ava Luna began their set and I proceeded to lose my mind.
The Brooklyn-based five-piece have written and performed records since 2007, but their Western Vinyl released fourth studio album Electric Balloon is a revelatory statement, an extant and progressive innovation of guitar music. The album refines Ava Luna‘s already compelling elements of soul-tinged doo-wop, avant-garde jazztronica, and noise-pop; here they appear less intentional and rudimentary, a faint sense of counter-intuition instigating each roundabout decision made by Columbia composition student Carlos Hernandez. His is the pinched and polished-to-perfection male voice that coats this record, an impressive range of pitch that takes on multiple expressions and personae. It was Hernandez who provided the main creative outline of the group’s past material, but on this release he relinquishes leadership for a more collaborative creative process. “I grew closer to my bandmates, began to see the roles of a family playing out. Ethan cooks dinner for all of us, we make lewd jokes, and then ‘after-dinner storytelling’ takes the form of playing music.” True to its synergistic conception, Electric Balloon feels like the brainchild of several pronounced souls.
Ava Luna have a tenacious propensity, especially within a live setting, for evoking the antagonistic influence of abrasive, punk-as-funk aesthetics. Any avid Talking Heads fan would find it difficult to divorce associations with Electric Balloon and the disbanded group’s anxious prog rock days at CBGB and the Mud Club. But their cited influences delve even deeper into New York City’s bountiful history of forward-thinking, genre-defying musicians. In the late 1970s vocalist-saxophonist James Chance collaborated with Brian Eno (producer of three pivotal Talking Heads‘ albums), cultivating the foundation for his aggravated and nihilistic experimentalism. Shortly after that the South Bronx sister-clan ESG would debut their no wave, hip-hop-inspired dance music at punk clubs like the Mechanical Hall. Hernandez is closer related to the former, likely motivating the sputtering guffaw of rampant clarinets and saxophones on “Genesee,” his voice mimicking the splintering, yet tender, melodic noises of the woodwinds. Vocalist-guitarist Becca Kaufman and vocalist-keyboardist Felicia Douglass, though, are often confused as two indistinguishable facets of a swirling, sensuous whole. Their alternating ebony-ivory chirp-like hooks are aggressive and expressive like the swag-savvy ladies of ESG, but they often deviate from form as an astonishing new entity.The most obvious example is “PRPL,” a melancholy, slacker rock ballad where the female lead vocals are crisp and convincing, cascading lethargy in a wispy falsetto.
Electric Balloon acquaints the listener with an erosive, albeit expertly arranged, album opener, “Daydream” is indecisive in its laboring efforts to establish a sustaining groove. When it’s finally secured the rhythm responds with frenzied and exuberant squawks and squeals; whether the trio of vocalists are enamored or enraged by its schizoid misgivings, though, is unclear. Probably both. Ava Luna are forceful in their attempts to put you off, but in the same fell swoop they’re turning you on. Less than three songs in and you might be convinced: This is a new kind of art rock. It ain’t the shit that’s mounted on walls or suffocated in shiny glass casings, and it’s certainly not accompanied with any neat, well packaged descriptors. This is art rock you can touch and smell and, most importantly, listen to without feeling completely alienated. The kind of art rock that might fall apart in your hands if it’s handled without care. It makes the record all the more invaluable, a glaring articulation of musical and extramusical otherness.