[Western Vinyl; 2018]
Situated in New York, Ava Luna has developed their own prog-y, punk-y sort of soul-pop that skirts the limits of traditional songwriting, dissolving form into a pretty imaginative, exciting, and elusive stew. This came to fruition most fully with their third full-length, 2014’s Electric Balloon, which folded lingering hooks and evocative images into a sort of bare-bones, guitar-driven, formless mélange. With Infinite House, a year later, Ava Luna took this arrival and developed it into something larger, somewhat more impressive, and in many ways more palatable. The deviating twists and turns at play in a song were given a sense of intent and direction.
Here on Moon 2, their fifth full-length, Ava Luna stretch to reinvent their core tenets — democratizing the songwriting process, embracing repetition and pop song structure, pushing electronic instrumentation and digital production to the center — to create something more transportive. Attempting to place their listeners under the beams of a new moon, they maintain familiar traits but deliver them in an adapted style: all the same matter and things and stuff, but with a newly governed, magnetic dynamism at play under the surface. A sort of a pop take on their more amorphous and elusive mode of play — songs are just as difficult to track, but more generously leave room for the repetition of phrases and the reprise of sections — Moon 2 finds a more welcoming, more enveloping, and more fantastic world than the garage-y atmospheres of past albums allowed. It should then be something like a surrealist escape, but what it picks up in atmosphere it drops in spectacle, content, and hook.
The step toward pop-grade production comes with an aversion to the harsher sounds that the band had picked up from industrial post-punk and no-wave. The result is more welcoming, but it also boxes things in tightly, giving up a great deal of dynamic range and disallowing what potential their arrangements had for dramatic swerves in tempo and texture (often a way of highlighting key moments in the past). For instance, Electric Balloon’s “PRPL” (that album’s closest touch point to the spacey brand of pop found here) dissolves into an airy, spacious instrumental bridge that somehow serves as the song’s centerpiece. Part of what makes it work is that the band naturally allowed the tempo and feel to dip slightly as they entered the section, picking it up again for the final verse. A similar effect occurs with the massive untamed swells that opened Infinite House within the song “Company.” The unorthodox delivery of that song’s explosive chorus owed itself to an elastic concept of tempo seemingly borrowed from sludge and doom metal.
This elasticity and range is unfortunately missing due to the production decisions made for Moon 2. Hooks don’t erupt, textures don’t burst open, and snares don’t even crack. The surface feels shockingly uniform throughout the album’s duration, especially considering how much it really does travel musically: “Mine” boasts an unexpected and successfully cinematic moment of strings; “Walking with an Enemy” nicely revisits the sort of narrative strut that delivered Infinite House’s “Steve Polyester,” here excited with a light jitter; and “Unless” is propelled by a starkly minimal, Afrobeat-styled groove.
Other moments unfortunately fall short of their potential. The guitar solo on “Centerline” brushes up against complete tastelessness (and I write that with the utmost admiration), but its soaring heights and indulgent modulations feel unsupported by the even, tidy pocket that sits below. Likewise, many moments external to the songs themselves — like the short processed vocal outro to “Set It Off” — deliver a forceful and exciting change in form and quality, but they lack the dynamic emphasis that would produce a real binding moment to propel the album through its sequence. With Moon 2, Ava Luna modestly succeed along the same rubric that we apply when we listen to Steely Dan or Daft Punk: the result is impressive, pleasant, and inventive, but ultimately feels too insubstantial for us to garner much from it.