Ava Luna’s Services EP, from 2009, opens with the off-kilter drums of “Clips.” Drumsticks rap against the rim of the snare as Carlos Hernandez sings the opening bars. Soon Hernandez is joined by backup singers in a pretty three-part harmony, and the synth rolls a few major chords. “I always knew you were a dangerous one,” Hernandez sings. He repeats the phrase once, the singers backing him, and then the song makes a sharp left turn. The synth splits into a bouncy riff, the backup singers dart in and out, and beneath it all a cracked fuzz bass rattles like a busted speaker. Hernandez unleashes the pent-up energy audible in his voice in the beginning, and what starts out with all the makings of a great pop song becomes something more strange and dynamic—all while delivering on that initial promise.
Ava Luna utilizes the pop idiom of the hook—the band’s records are packed with them—but the music goes far beyond pop’s standard verse-chorus structure. The band’s approach is idiosyncratic: more Dziga Vertov than Hollywood blockbuster. Early on this manifested as a chopped-up quality; Services is a brilliant piece of radical juxtaposition. In the years since, which have seen the 2012 release of the album Ice Level and this year’s excellent Electric Balloon, Ava Luna has kept evolving. The jagged edges and quick cuts of “Clips” have given way to a warmer sound and more flowing style.
Members Ethan Bassford, Felicia Douglass, and Rebecca Kauffman have been with the group since 2009; drummer Julian Fader joined not long after. In the beginning most of the ideas would come from Hernandez, but as the band has matured, each member has come to play more of an active role in the composition process. Now, Hernandez explains, “What’s interesting for us is, on top of loosening the grip on the aesthetic choices, we’ve also loosened the grip on the process choices.” Hernandez describes the band coming up with Electric Balloon’s opener, “Daydream,” while he was asleep in the next room; he and Douglass later added vocals to come up with the final version. “The challenge,” says Hernandez, “is making it all make sense together.”
This new collaborative dynamic is everywhere on Electric Balloon. To take an example: “Plain Speech” begins with a minute of funky guitar and four-on-the-floor drums, Hernandez belting out the titular refrain. Ever so subtly, the song mellows, and a smooth cooing background vocal comes in. Hernandez begins a new melody, his tone more subdued. The song builds and then spills over into a beautiful chorus, which in turn builds to yet another crescendo. The succession of melodies is unexpected, but not abrupt, as on Services; rather each melody, as it arrives, seems to be following the internal logic of the song. It’s possible to glimpse the band’s evolution in this one track, but Ava Luna’s music rewards a broader scope. “The new feel of things frames and intensifies the old approach,” Hernandez says. “For me it’s all about contrast.”
This New York four piece plays blistering free jazz with a rock band’s lockstep synergy. soundcloud.com/auxbells
Apocalyptic post-punk from Detroit, with lyrics as devastating as Charles Bukowski’s poetry. protomartyr.bandcamp.com/releases
By setting poems by Dorothy Parker to music, the Montreal native avoids folk music’s self-absorbed pitfalls and highlights the power of simple melodies with minimal accompaniment. myriamgendron.tumblr.com
Hardcore punk from Athens, GA, informed by ambient music and infused with bluesy swung rhythms, with thoughtful and incisive lyrics by frontman Joshua Evans. muuybiien.bandcamp.com
The L.A. artist poses the question: Shouldn’t folk music be able to absorb tape loops and pitch-modified vocals? greengerry0.bandcamp.com
Motion Sickness of Time Travel
There is a great deal of dynamic, sublime electronic music coming out of Winterville, GA, all thanks to the staggeringly prolific Rachel Evans. motionsicknessoftimetravel.blogspot.com
The percussionist is a master of controlled chaos and can coax impossible sounds out of his instrument. He can, for example, take a violin bow to a cymbal and make it sound like a guitar feeding back. hhproduction.org
Cian Nugent & the Cosmos
The laid-back Irish guitarist is helping to move instrumental guitar music away from the stolid legacy of John Fahey and into open territory. ciannugent.bandcamp.com
Colin L. Orchestra
The New York group explores the idea of the rock band as large, mutable ensemble—who needs a wall of sound when you can fill the whole room? northernspyrecords.com/artist/colin-l-orchestra
Whether or not the handful of reunion dates the Montreal pop group played in August will lead to something more, this year’s reissue of their sole album, 2004’s brilliant, uncanny Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone, is triumph enough. twitter.com/theunicornsband
MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.