The Luyas’ new record, Animator, opens in pieces. The first song, the nearly nine-minute “Montuno” starts by laying out its soft keys and synths, then in a separate movement its string arrangements. The rhythm section doesn’t come in for almost three minutes, around the same time Jessie Stein’s haunting vocals come in. They layers are exposed one by one here, showing us the elements that will combine to make that song and the rest of the tunes on this solid album.
And yet, to see them come together is to be often surprised. “Montuno” is an amazing feat and a perfect start to this record. It’s framed in a very real sadness — the band lost someone close to them just as they went in to record the record — so when Stein keens about how “it gets harder, harder, harder…” you believe every note. But while the song thinks on death and its effect on the living, it also doesn’t give in to despair. The song takes on new life when the drums kick into a more intricate, syncopated pulse in the second half of the song. The layers remain fragile, but there’s a steady foundation behind them, one that assures us there’s no self-defeat in this song, but resilience.
What’s at stake here — very real questions of mortality — hangs over everything here, so that this very dreamy pop does not get too lost in its own fantasy. The wafting textures of “Montuno” give way to the shadowy, angled guitars of “Fifty Fifty”. The strings on “Face” are bright, even pastoral, but Stein’s vocals, which usually stretch words out, pronounces clearly here, keeping the words contained, tense. Even a song like “Talking Mountains”, which is as bare and drifting as the album gets, and as hopelessly romantic — “I wasn’t waiting,” Stein tries to tell us, “I wasn’t looking for a face” — but the echo around the song rings out into that mortality on the horizon. There’s a hush to all of this, sold convincingly on songs like closer “Channeling”, that feels like the Luyas aren’t trying to duck mortality so much as they are trying to make plans as quietly and under the radar as possible.
The very real worry around Animator is what makes the record move, what takes sounds and makes them convincing feeling. It’s an album that, at its best, walks a careful line meshing fragility with rock-solid rhythms and compositions. When that balance gets upset, the effect is glaring. “Earth Turner” is a rumbling center piece here, baring just a bit of teeth to keep things interesting in the middle of the record, but its final moments bloom into a flurry of laser-shooting sounds. The album, for a moment, sounds like a crowded arcade, and while it may look to switch up the texture of the record, it goes about it in a too-obvious and ineffective way. Similarly, the brief instrumental “Crimes Machine”, with its warbling ambience, feels both undercooked and forced, an unnecessary mood piece in an album with plenty of other intricate moods. So Animator is an album with a very well-built and convincing formula, one that works best when the Luyas stick to their own script. The off-book moments here, though they attempt to surprise, in the end just pull us out of what’s an otherwise hypnotizing record.