Music

Los Angeles-based La Luz channel the girl-group harmonies of the 1960s in their luminous, self-titled album. By Cat Woods.

La Luz

La Luz members (from left) Alice Sandahl, Shana Cleveland and Lena Simon.
Credit: Pooneh Ghana

Evoking the surf-folk sounds of the late ’60s on their fourth album since 2012, California-based trio La Luz harmonise their dusky, ethereal voices in lingering, softly hued layers that seduce the senses. Here the harshness of existence is exorcised in sunny, psychedelic odes to “the California skies”.

Shana Cleveland, Marian Li-Pino, Alice Sandahl and Abbey Blackwell formed La Luz in Seattle almost 20 years ago. Cleveland and Sandahl remain in the trio, after Li-Pino and Blackwell departed and Lena Simon took over bass and backing vocals. Fittingly, their self-titled album feels like their most authentic artistic statement to date.

The fundamental ingredient is hip-hop/soul producer Adrian Younge, who, unlike previous producers Dan Auerbach and Ty Segall, has refrained from imprinting his sonic signature all over the band.

The garage-guitar snarl of their previous releases is replaced by an airy lightness, anchored by nostalgic sonic references. There’s a Simon & Garfunkel spirit within the melancholic pop, comprising a Wurlitzer organ, Mellotron and electric guitar circling melodically around a pivot of solid, confident bass guitar. Traces of Joni Mitchell emerge in songs such as the sweetly unfussy “Oh, Blue” and “Lazy Eyes and Dune”, in which the girls’ heavenly voices weave in and over one another.

Channelling the harmonies of The Shangri-Las, the opening track “In the Country” is hazy, half-dreamed tragi-pop. “You’re the only one underneath the sun” becomes a repeated mantra, layered with celestial ease over noodling, cosmic guitar until the ethereal magic fades out at barely three minutes. That is one of La Luz’s charms: they can gradually fill the sonic atmosphere with melody, harmony, clever vocal interplay and echoing, fuzzy guitars, but never indulgently or without climax and conclusion. The album is being released one song at a time via streaming platform Spotify, and currently takes the form of an EP named after the most recent track.

The longest track on the album, “Lazy Eyes and Dune” is an anomaly at almost five minutes. Its sad, jangle-pop captures listeners within a prism, the light reflecting blindingly inward. If their 2015 album Weirdo Shrine took inspiration from Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole, in which 1970s Seattle teenagers infect their city with an unidentifiable sexually transmitted disease, this album could soundtrack The Virgin Suicides, Girl, Interrupted or Lost in Translation. The mournful, echoing electric piano melody tells a sad story of loneliness, yearning, the rite of passage from girlhood to adulthood. It’s the sonic embodiment of every creepily heartbreaking 1980s teenage movie you’ve tried to erase from memory.

That said, this album is far more melodic, upbeat and dreamlike than their seething, post-trauma Weirdo Shrine. In its glimmering, dusky-hued wonder, La Luz exhales withheld emotions. It isn’t their first release of the year, since their self-released Live from the Black Hole came out in March, a response to pandemic isolation. Each member recorded their own parts then sent them on to the others, drawing upon existing songs rather than creating new material. It served to remind listeners that the band can transcend the worst scenarios to create cosmic, catchy, angular-guitar rock.

They’ve navigated disaster before – in 2013, driving back from Boise, Idaho to Seattle, their tour van slipped on black ice and collided with a semitrailer. The band were all injured, and their van, trailer, instruments and merchandise were destroyed. The suffering, shock and subsequent change in line-up reverberated through their later work. Weirdo Shrine echoed the trauma in tracks such as “Sleep Till They Die (Health, Life and Fire)”, “Don’t Wanna Be Anywhere”, and “Black Hole, Weirdo Shrine”. That album, produced by Ty Segall, was poignant in its tight, savage guitar riffs, layered harmonies and almost Gothic beauty. It was also the sonic equivalent of clenched fists.

A song such as “Watching Cartoons” would not have belonged on that album, but here, in its carefree loveliness, it represents a clearing of the storm clouds. The gentle chime of multi-pitched “bop-bop-ba-da-da” and “ooo-wah-ooo” harmonies captures the essence of early childhood mornings eating sugary cereal and watching Technicolor characters bouncing around a screen, oblivious to adult sensibilities. A rubbery, resonant bass anchors the sweetness to the present.

Elsewhere “Goodbye Ghost” has the feel of an old cowboy movie, channelled through the modern, cinematic sheen of Quentin Tarantino. Upon the soft cymbal-snare-kick backbeat, the ominous Western standoff guitars – almost mariachi-like – hark back to Appalachian folk songs. “When you leave, no, I won’t see you again,” sings Cleveland. “Goodbye, old ghosts.” The pace becomes stranger and darker on instrumental “Yuba Rot”, which opens to a militant drumbeat before a wash of trippy, mescaline atmospherics drowns the senses. It’s a cosmic evocation of the Spanish and Mexican explorers who named the Californian region, a sacred place according to Native Americans, where the Sacramento River once ran upstream to goldfields.

“Yuba Rot” could have easily been the brainchild of their previous collaborator, Dan Auerbach of psychedelic country blues band The Black Keys. He helmed the production of La Luz’s 2018 album Floating Features, which sounded like an all-female The Black Keys. It foraged deep in Delta country blues, losing sight of some of the playful, soulful, diaphanous essence of La Luz. Here, with Younge focusing on flow and melody, they are not trying to fit into anyone else’s pigeonhole.

It feels DIY, in the spirit of mid-1960s garage bands where teenagers took up tambourines, percussion and thrashed away on a couple of chords in their parents’ basement. Particularly jovial and almost reckless, the tidal sweep of “Metal Man” is what an all-female, punk-rock The Beach Boys might sound like. The scent of coconut oil and surfboard wax lingers over tinny, snarling, distorted guitars that haven’t been engineered into perfection.

While a harmonising girl group is typically going to draw comparisons to The Ronettes, The Shirelles, and – as I’ve done already – The Shangri-Las, there are many current acts on the same wavelength. Los Angeles all-female four-piece Warpaint also create dreamy, neo-psychedelic rock, and Oakland-based Shannon and the Clams blend doo-wop with garage and surfer rock. As far as mood, the woozy, spaced-out country folk of Texan trio Khruangbin is only a skip and a jump away from La Luz. You could also comfortably file this album between anything by Cat Power, Beach House and Lana Del Rey. Or you could let go of comparisons and let the dreamy waves of La Luz draw you into their depths.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 2, 2021 as "Breaking waves".

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Cat Woods is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and culture critic.