Soulful though they may still be, nervousness has become a thing of their past.
Ava Luna – Infinite House
Since their 2012 debut, the fascinating but not fully developed Ice Level, Ava Luna have pegged their eclectic, experimental, ineffable sound as “nervous soul.” This moniker proved quite adept in describing 2014’s jagged, frenetic Electric Balloon (one of last year’s best-hidden gems), but on follow-up Infinite House, anxiety makes its presence less known than ever before in Ava Luna’s career. Each of the band’s three vocalists spends less time in the manic, shrill sections of their vocal ranges, areas into which past releases dipped heavily; furthermore, these new songs’ rhythms, melodies, and harmonies tend to cut back on the complexities of previous works’ arrangements without sacrificing them completely. Nevertheless, Ava Luna haven’t ditched every one of their hallmarks: even though Infinite House may be Ava Luna’s most mature album yet, the zany, somewhat inscrutable lyricism that’s defined them to date still appears in spades here.
Where older Ava Luna songs such as “Sears Roebuck M&M’s” or “Calculus” thrill with jagged, agitated rhythms, vocals, and multi-vocalist harmonies, Infinite House‘s tunes tend to resonate via smoother, more linear rhythms and vocals. “Roses and Cherries”, for example, recalls the relatively muted Electric Balloon number “Aqaurium”, albeit with vocalist Carlos Hernandez exhibiting more restraint and control of his shaky, hissing vibrato and fretful expression. A pillowy acoustic guitar riff underpins Hernandez’ newly stable voice; when an electric guitar fill emerges later, it continues the song’s simple flow rather than pushing it in a more spastic direction as might happen on older Ava Luna tracks. Follow-up track “Coat of Shellac” also quite boldly rides a wave of sensual moderation, its spiny guitar parts playing second fiddle to the song’s soul-imbued bass line and not concealing it. Electric Balloon highlight “PRPL” seems in retrospect to have previewed this song, one on which vocalist Felicia Douglass displays what might be her most comfortable performance to date.
In general, Infinite House shows Ava Luna retreating into comfort, a move that might signal death for most bands, but instead ensures a more interestingly subtle third album for this five-piece. For instance, “Steve Polyester” bubbles past the ears without any sort of exaggerated features; the occasional doo-wop harmony or faintly whistling ambient noise, rather than an earth-shattering guitar blast, arhythmic groove, or piercing vocal wail, proves the most startling thing about this track. Final track “Carbon” also breezes by without intrusion while remaining gorgeous; its woozy piano foundation and harnessed vocal take indicate relaxation rather than angst. The title track wins in this category, though, as its low-key rumble feels like a lazy river against the backdrop of even this album’s loosest tunes.
Even when Ava Luna attempt to write in the fractured, pounding states they’re familiar with, they wind up with a distilled, less abrasive sketch of their old selves. “Tenderize” demonstrates that Hernandez hasn’t lost his ability to absolutely holler if he needs to, but far more often finds him resting at the midpoint of his impressive vocal range; furthermore, although its guitars bear that same past tendency to sound like an object slowly falling down a long set of stairs, they also don’t possess nearly as deep a barbed, frayed edge as Ava Luna is known for. “Black Dog” too attempts to reconcile the old Ava Luna with the new one, trading in a soft shroud of crooning and timid finger-picking for a window-shattering, overdrive-blasting guitar attack at its halfway point. As Infinite House songs go, it ranks among the most idiosyncratically Ava Luna songs present, yet it still feels impressively well controlled. “Best Hexagon” follows in sequence on the album, and this song’s steady rhythm, easily traceable harmonies and flow bear merely a sliver of past intricacies while impacting just as strongly.
The track that comes next, “Billz”, represents the most extreme moment on Infinite House, one that most vividly reminds the listener of Ava Luna’s background, explaining its role as the album’s first single. The pummeling roar of its introductory guitar riff gives way to a woozy verse of—you guessed it—nervous soul, which then leads to a melodically and rhythmically elusive chorus. The repetition of this song’s fiery introduction as its post-chorus relieves the tension of the chorus, a trick employed to great success many times in Ava Luna’s previous highlights. Its lyrics are no more decipherable; even reading its lyrics on Infinite House‘s Bandcamp page never fully elucidates the song’s meaning, although guessing it’s a statement about the worthlessness of a college degree in this day and age might not be a bad start.
The lyricism of Infinite House provides the most obvious link between the album and Ava Luna’s previous two collections. If the words on songs such as “Sears Roebuck M&Ms” and “Electric Balloon” felt completely arbitrary and stream-of-consciousness, then the tale of “Steve Polyester” is the dialogue of a comic book acid trip (“Shaped like a cockroach/he smells good”). Even on “Coat of Shellac”, arguably Infinite House‘s most tender moment, the lyricism delves into the abstract: “No not like the TV, whittle it away/sorta novel to stay largest and heavy, mountain full of clay”, hums Felicia Douglass in what’s otherwise an enjoyably standard love song. It’s likely that this approach has grown into an Ava Luna trademark to impart some sort of humor to their work, as evidenced in “Victoria”‘s graduation of the phrase “you’re no good, baby” to “you’re a no good, baby”; both statements alternate with the notion that “you’re everything I want you to be.”
Although Ava Luna’s lyrics remain weird and funny, their music is now the farthest it has felt from these descriptors thus far in their career. That’s not to say a song like “Company” isn’t odd and that its stuttered chorus doesn’t impart a slightly comical tone to its words; rather, Ava Luna employ greater moderation on Infinite House, a technique that portrays the band as newly level-headed without betraying their most exciting aspects. Soulful though they may still be, nervousness has become a thing of their past.