[3 March 2014]
Ava Luna’s music collection could be worse. The Brooklyn five-piece excel at taste-splicing in an era when nothing is new and combining old sounds and styles to create something fleetingly unique is the go-to modus operandi. The New York post-punk and no wave of ESG, James Chance and the Contortions and Talking Heads are easy to spot influences, as are more current inspirations such as Aaliyah and Dirty Projectors. It’s fitting, then, that Ava Luna’s second full-length, Electric Balloon, was mixed by Jimmy Douglass, who has worked on releases for both Television and Missy Elliott. Electric Balloon is nowhere near as consistent as Marquee Moon or Miss E…So Addictive, but when it’s on, Ava Luna do their influences proud.
Carlos Hernandez is the technical lead singer of Ava Luna, but occasionally he will step aside to let the stunning vocals of Felicia Douglass or the punkier strains of Becca Kauffman take center stage. Hernandez’s voice is an acquired taste. If you like Beck’s soul histrionics on Midnite Vultures or any vocal performance by Jamie Lidell, you’re going to love it. If you’re bored of the white boy soul thing, then just don’t bother. Either way, Hernandez’s songs always bring to mind a sweaty,desperate twentysomething in an oversized suit, although any Ava Luna live footage on the Internet shows a nerdy young guy in a polo shirt playing guitar and singing with an incongruous, Al Green-steeped, falsetto.
Hernandez heads two of the clearest winners on Electric Balloon, one being the opener, “Daydream”, whose screeching sax sees the band at their most Contortions-esque. The frankly excellent “Plain Speak” is Ava Luna firing on all cylinders, with Hernandez barking the title like he’s auditioning to sing the “James Brown” line in a Brooklyn indie stars cover of Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love”. The song soon abandons nervy funk for straight up soul, with a bridge that sounds slightly reminiscent of Green’s “L-O-V-E Love”. When Douglass and Kauffman join in on the chorus, they sound so unabashedly blissful and warm that the listener can’t help but raise her arms to praise this moment of sincere power.
The album’s title track, which follows “Plain Speak”, upholds Electric Balloon’s middle section and sees Kauffman taking center stage for a vocal performance far better than the Kathleen Hanna homage she adopted on Ava Luna’s recent cover of Icona Pop’s “I Love It”. With just this one song, Kauffman upholds valuable female post punk vocal tics while the rest of the Ava Luna personnel inject some New Wavey flavor into the proceedings. In the same manner, Kauffman does her best Renee Scroggins impression on “Sears Roebuck M&M’s” and comes out with a song that would sweep a diet ESG taste test.
The purest R&B track on Electric Balloon is “PRPL”, and it features another—even more effective—winning solo from Douglass. Although “Judy”, with its “you know a nerd is singing this soul song” refrain of “I don’t have the stomach for it” comes close, other songs with urban leanings, such as “Hold U”, “Crown”, and “Aquarium” feel lacking. Electric Balloon’s closing tracks, “Genesee” and “Ab Ovo” show promise insofar as Ava Luna creating a more unique sound for themselves, but these songs also have an air of too little, too late.
Ava Luna are surely a band to watch, and when Kauffman and Douglass sing back-up, their takes serve as a nice antidote to Dirty Projectors’ more artsy fartsy rendering of doo-wop singing. Still, Electric Balloon lacks the consistency needed to catapult Ava Luna beyond the indie blogosphere. Nothing here really surpasses predecessor Ice Level’s standout “Wrenning Day”. Apart from decent work by Jimmy Douglass and a few moments of genuine emotion and promise, Ava Luna will hopefully have better luck the third time around.