On their newest LP, Electric Balloon, New York’s Ava Luna offer a solid rock and R&B framework infused with the pulse of experimental music. The result is something they call “nervous soul” — experimental rock that is as texturally interesting as it is emotionally invigorating.
As soon as Electric Balloon begins, its simple grouping of rock instruments offers a cool, open, and vintage-inspired sound. With heavy power chords, musical interlude-tracing guitar licks, funky bass lines that make you want to dance, and a percussion section featuring everything from cymbals and tambourines to maracas and woodblocks, Ava Luna tap into many of the classic and modern rock instrumental mainstays that would be right at home on a Black Keys album and which (at least for me) cannot fail to please. Add to this awesome, soulful, R&B-reminiscent vocals by Carlos Hernandez and light, edgy female vocals that dart in and out of the album’s gritty backing instrumentation, and you’ve already got a soundscape that is engaging all on its own.
With “unfinished” intros and outros, an overall rough sound, and studio sound bites purposefully left in, Electric Balloon definitely gives off a lo-fi garage rock feel, coming off as something raw and unplanned, though still tight. The incorporation of additional experimental elements, moreover, feels subtle and enriching, rather than distracting or overwrought. Spastic horns on “Daydream”, for example, lend grittiness to the song that could not have been achieved through lo-fi rock alone, while a strange musical interlude in the middle of “PRPL” introduces a sense of gravity to the already stunningly sparse yet soulful track.
Beyond distortion and alternative sampling, Ava Luna play around with dissonance and timing in an intriguing way, offering strange chords, choppy vocals, and heavy instrumental parts that abruptly start and stop. Because Electric Balloon‘s instrumentation is often simple, it sounds as though the band creates seemingly disparate musical blocks — a measure of keys, for example, a few seconds of silence, a space between drum beats, a drawn out vocal melody — and then stacks them together in sequences, so that individual tracks feels simultaneously cohesive and familiar but also disjointed and interesting as they unfold. In a matter of moments, a song can change from big sound to small sound and back again, from a congested soundscape to a clear one, from a rock-centric passage that lulls you into complacency to a strange, temporarily mind-altering interlude.
This blocky yet cohesive compositional nature allows the album to feel uniquely spontaneous, as if the musicians were improvising when they wrote it, as if the songs are still being written, as if the melodies are unraveling at the same moment you are hearing them for the first time. Though the last few tracks are a bit too loose, having lost a bit of the album’s earlier momentum, the times when Electric Balloon feels like it is barely holding itself together are when it is most successful. This feeling allows for a unique listening experience — one that is exciting and invigorating — and is well-suited for the neurotic listener who seeks more in a record than to familiarize the unfamiliar.