Ava Luna's "nervous soul" comes in a few shapes and sizes, yet never fails to strike and enchant.
Ava Luna – Electric Balloon
For someone who’s career is all about listening, Carlos Hernandez, de facto leader of Ava Luna, sure likes to watch. He’s a bit voyeuristic in his role for Ava Luna’s “Ice Level” video, stating that his character “watches from a dark, geometrical vantage point.” More revealing is when he’s observing to learn rather than, well, to be creepy. In an interview with A Music Blog, Yea?, Hernandez confessed that, rather than jamming with his idol Ornette Coleman, he’d rather record Coleman’s performance and “just act the observer, watch for twitches and tics.” Listening to the idiosyncrasies of Ava Luna’s captivating sophomore album Electric Balloon, it’s surprising that Hernandez hasn’t already done exactly that. Each of the album’s eleven songs flaunts the band’s unique jitters and quirks, placing Ava Luna’s very own twitches and tics front and center. Although the dynamics and mood of the music fluctuate somewhat throughout the album, each track sounds uniquely like an Ava Luna song.
Of course, a unique sound isn’t a direct pathway to success. Take, as an example, the rap-rave style of Die Antwoord, a sound that’s unmatched by any other musical act, yet, frankly, sounds quite terrible. Ava Luna have no such problem: the “nervous soul” style, to steal a Bandcamp tag they invented and assigned to themselves, advanced on Electric Balloon is exciting, unpredictable, and wholly theirs. Nevertheless, superficial comparisons to other acts can be made — vocalist Becca Kaufman can sit on the border between cute and eerie just like Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki can, Carlos Hernandez has a snarl not far removed from Black Francis or tourmates and good friends Krill, and the male-female vocal interplay, odd meter, and technical complexity reminisce of Dirty Projectors, by far Ava Luna’s most frequent comparison. Yet after only a couple of listens, the gates guarding Electric Balloon‘s individuality are shattered, and Ava Luna’s anxious, oddball sound becomes entirely theirs.
One of Ava Luna’s tendencies that attributes to their already-signature sound is their ability to make various tempos, volumes, and emotions sound like no one else has ever touched upon them, all in the course of one album. On Electric Balloon, the flamenco-inspired, shuffling acoustic ballad “Aquarium” sounds just as Ava Luna-esque as does Becca Kaufman’s wild yelping on the mid-paced funk groove of “Sears Roebuck M&Ms” and the uneasy title track. Likewise, the slow-burning, oddly pretty “PRPL” never sounds like the work of a different group than that behind the angsty, boiling soul tension of “Crown.” Ava Luna’s “nervous soul” comes in a few shapes and sizes, yet never fails to strike and enchant.
Even with the diversity of sonic approaches taken on Electric Balloon, certain facets of Ava Luna’s writing consistently manifest in their music. Carlos Hernandez’ ability to swing from a soulful coo to a manic snarl in what feels like only a second drives a good number of these songs, and his laborious arrangements form the backbone of this album. The vocal turns on “Daydream” and “Crown” are particularly impressive, despite neither song sounding even remotely similar to the other. “Plain Speech” displays the extremes in Hernandez’ voice many times in its four-and-a-half minutes, but more exciting are the two tempo changes Hernandez incorporates. The dramatic shift from a sound that really epitomizes “nervous soul” to slowed indie rock greatness (and then back again) surprises each time.
The chorus of “Plain Speech” is equally important for reiterating Becca Kaufman’s significance in Ava Luna’s various sounds. Although she takes the position of background vocalist on this song, as she does on “Hold U”, “Judy”, and “Genesee”, her voice might actually be more intriguing than Hernandez’ off-the-walls vocal chaos. Kaufman quite literally whoops her way through “Sears Roebuck M&Ms” and squeals her way through “Electric Balloon”, two of the most invigorating tracks present. As a background vocalist, she reinforces Hernandez’ shaky, uncertain voice with a solidity that magnifies its emotive effects. Her hollers of “Judy, I don’t have the stomach for you!” under Hernandez’ own shouting of these lyrics delivers the message even more firmly than if Hernandez were left to his own devices.
Electric Balloon sounds more like the work of the whole band rather than just Hernandez, a problem that their debut Ice Level presented. Despite being quite a riot itself, the latter album felt restricted by Hernandez’ control; Electric Balloon flows more freely, its boundaries practically nonexistent thanks to the other members’ contributions. Although Ice Level highlights such as “Wrenning Day” and “Sequential Holdings” predicted the explosive nature of Electric Balloon without fully embracing them, tracks like “No F” and “A Year of Mirth” never quite took off as they might be expected to. Electric Balloon suffers from no such malady, as even its slightly tepid finale, “Ab Ovo”, leaps forward in its final ninety seconds. Here, Ava Luna have incorporated the ideas and skills of many people rather than just one into their sound; the result is something less trapped and more explorative.
Electric Balloon isn’t perfect, but it’s a big step forward for these five weirdos. The multi-faceted style they’ve developed is purely enjoyable, and it never tires. It’s the kind of album that tries many different outfits on out of genuine interest instead of pretentious vacillations, and provides a listening experience worth repeating time and time again. Maybe this is because it offers more questions than it does answers, which is totally fine when the music sounds this good. Perhaps the best question regarding Ava Luna now isn’t one generated directly by the album, but by the listener in response to the album: if Ava Luna is capable of something this towering and singular, who’s to say they can’t outdo themselves in the future?