If I had one musical do-over for 2012, I’d use it to move Ava Luna’s Ice Level into my top ten. It was the quintessential grower – sounding even more compelling today than it did upon release, and cementing Carlos Hernandez’s three-vocalist juggernaut’s position among the most fascinating young bands around.
On Electric Balloon Hernandez quashes any chance of being overlooked again with the punk-funk immediacy of opener “Daydream,” complete with staccato guitars and James White and the Blacks-worthy sax bleats. On his band’s second full-length the bespectacled and fearless frontman opts for a more collaborative songwriting approach, leaving Ava Luna sounding less clinical (which was never a bad thing) and more like an integrated whole (which is an even better thing). “Crown” is perhaps the apex of this newfound inclusiveness, starting as a slow soul vamp and building seamlessly to a crescendo of wordless female chants and burning groove.
Hernandez can let loose with both Prince-style falsetto wails and hyperventilated yelps reminiscent of David Byrne circa Talking Heads: 77, but vocal counterpoints Felicia Douglass and Becca Kauffman are always nearby to sweeten the mix. The now five-piece Brooklyn troupe has jettisoned a third female vocalist and second keyboardist since their early days of home-burned, hand-decorated CDs, probably out of economic necessity. Longtime fans may briefly lament the absence of over the top, Dirty Projectors-like backing choruses, but the reliability with which the newly sharpened quintet delivers on the jagged yet rump-shaking “Plain Speech” and “Judy” (which is somehow simultaneously the album’s most pensive, unhinged and rockist track) more than makes up for it.
Oddly, featured single “PRPL” (Prince signifier, anyone?) represents a soft middle, its reasonably conventional slow jam and Douglass’ smooth lead vocal crowding out the band’s strengths. Ava Luna are at their best when they paint outside the lines, bringing plenty of their cockeyed, no holds barred personality to their bedroom R&B foundation. Which is precisely what Hernandez and company do on the vast majority of the excellent Electric Balloon.