Ava Luna's latest is as multilayered and pleasantly bewildering as the "infinite house" where it was recorded.
In Ava Luna’s world, half-glimpsed creatures fade into landscapes, labyrinth hallways span for miles, and indie rock embraces soul -- the scraggly kind -- without the trace of ironic distance. It’s a better world to occupy, really. On the New York group’s third outing, Infinite House, the usual elements are in place: jagged, bone-dry guitars, grooves that are funky but not quite funk, and Carlos Hernandez’s throaty yelp. But the band broke with recording routine, decamping to a “maze-like” house in small-town Mississippi (there’s a hand-drawn map in the liner notes, should you plan a pilgrimage) and nabbing mixer/Flaming Lips guy Dave Fridmann to clean up the result. The songs are simultaneously Ava Luna’s weirdest and most accessible to date, veering freely between the garage-fuzz (“Best Hexagon”) and Motown-splattered soul poles (“Carbon”) without inhibition.
Ava Luna’s stylistic barrier-hopping also breaks with organizational orthodoxy: The band has three vocalists. Carlos Hernandez, who sings like the son of a famed soul DJ he is, still gets the most mic time, and his range here has broadened. On the gloriously volatile “Tenderize” he describes a house whose “rooms go on for miles” in a Black Francis yelp; ominous and spare, “Black Dog” dials that approach down to a muted croon. Other vocalist Becca Kaufman, who shrieked on last year’s “Sears Roebuck M&Ms” and cataloged a litany of vowel sounds on “Electric Balloon,” steers the record’s finest track: a joyfully twisted piece of Tom Waitsian spoken-word drama called “Steve Polyester”. Kaufman, like her bandmates, recognizes that funk lies as much in inflection as much as groove, and her talk-singy delivery is a gleefully funny recounting of a backwoods mystery man set to surf-guitar scrapes and a “Doo-doo doo-doo-doo!” chorus. And third vocalist Felicia Douglass fronts the closest Ava Luna may come to a three-and-a-half-minute pop track on the breezy “Coat of Shellac”.
Plenty will be written about Ava Luna’s flash harmonies and oddball rhythms (is that a 5/4 lurch carrying “Steve Polyester”?), but it’s hardly academic. It’s tough, really, to overstate how fun these tracks are. There’s a sense of glee that pulses throughout the seven-minute psych-funk workout “Victoria”, and emerges in snatches of studio chatter and laughter in “Steve Polyester” and “Tenderize”. Even on the record’s rare weaker cuts (the Julio Cortázar-inspired “Roses and Cherries” skips along with minimal impact), the band manages to channel its substantial stage energy into a studio product that’s leaner, sharper and more clearly realized than the two albums that preceded it. Though neat and compact at under 40 minutes, Infinite House is as multilayered and pleasantly bewildering as the house where it was recorded.