The Shadowy Surf of “Weirdo Shrine”

(Via Hardly Art)

The all-woman quartet of La Luz has built its reputation as a surf rock band that resides in the shade. Shana Cleveland’s scorching guitar riffs recall the raucous stomps of Dick Dale, and the rinky dink organ sounds of Alice Sandahl suggest lackadaisical days in the sun. Yet, with titles like “Pink Slime,” “Big Big Blood” and “Sunstroke,” there’s an undertone that they’d rather be hanging out at a beach side resort’s indoor pool than actually basking in the light. The band made its full-length debut in 2013 with It’s Alive, a mostly roaring affair which saw the band blast through waves of sound. Yet, the shredding was grounded by girl group harmonies marked by an eerie dreaminess. The latest, Weirdo Shrine, is covered in fuzz and throws out some of the more uptempo numbers for added emphasis on their more shadowy elements. The driving force of the band is still Cleveland’s guitar, which rides along the rhythm of Lena Simon’s bass chords and the skittering percussion of Marian Li Pino. It’s just that the lights at the tiki bar they are in have dimmed to a level of ambiance that’s fit for the Golden Fang of Thomas Pynchon lore. This mode of foreboding best fits La Luz’s moodiness and shows them in their purest form.

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The playfulness that layered much of It’s Alive is ditched in favor of dialing up the darker pieces that were integral to the band’s sound but not immediately apparent. Cleveland’s guitar is more menacing and dripping in reverb. Sandahl’s organs are moved from the roller rink to the drive-in for the latest gore drenched, campy nightmare. La Pino now rumbles and crashes with the tumultuous pace of a tsunami. Simon keeps pace with subtle, smooth changes in chords that give room to the haunting girl-group vocals and open up the floor to Cleveland’s rips. The launch point for all of this is “Sleep Till They Die,” a slow burn that starts with languid strumming and cooing vocals then closes on a wipeout. The ride gets more thrilling on “You Disappear” as La Luz plunges down into their familiar territory of the fast-paced except it feels like the rip curl is close to swallowing you whole.

The velocity of the album varies as much as a roller coaster. With every high speed drop, there’s a fair amount of lull until you reach your next climb. That space of time in between each adrenaline packed number is filled with pretty melodies and shimmering guitar strums that put you in a trance, its effect erases any semblance of thought that you were on an adrenaline thrill ride just several minutes prior. Just look at the difference from the slow-dance of “I Can’t Speak” to the plunging thrash of “Hey Papi,” or the change from the pulsing “Black Hole, Weirdo Shrine” to the beautiful daze of “Oranges.” The result is like being on a Disney dark ride that puts you in awe of the set pieces then makes you forget them because you’re holding on for dear life.

Some of the credit for Weirdo Shrine’s near-perfect representation of the band is due to the production from garage rock monolith, Ty Segall. A lot of the expectations about the album were colored by Cleveland’s known hesitancy towards the use of scuzz that has defined much of Segall’s work in the kaleidoscopic California garage scene. There was a thought that it’d be drowning in his effects of choice. Those signatures of fuzz are present but in a way that makes the recording sound decades older than it is. There is one moment after “I Wanna Be Alone (With You)” which sounds like a bit of amplifier screech followed by tape hiss, a production trick that sounds like celluloid burning on a projector which adds to the B-movie atmosphere La Luz creates. Weirdo Shrine’s larger accomplishment is that it is a singular work that builds on surf rock traditions while managing to expand the parameters of the sub-genre.

Other revivalists of the summery sound tend to stick very close to the more formulaic aspects of it, adding nothing but white noise in order to differentiate themselves from surf’s forebearers. La Luz managed to create their own niche brand of surf that has already earned itself a run through the New Genre Generator by being labeled “surf noir” and “black coast.” It’s a testament to the band’s ability to take the sonic structure of the genre and bend it to the will of its macabre subject matter.

Though, as exciting as the album is, it’s hard not to wonder if the newly created walls of “surf noir” will become as restraining as the genre from which it descended. Every sub-genre manages to stick to a certain format due to a listless end of copycats who can’t quite find a way to break through, but La Luz is a band which has managed to overcome the constraints of its preferred style of sound, a line-up change and a near-fatal car accident that left the group without much of their equipment. It’s safe to say that restrictions are not a foreseeable problem for this gang of true originals.

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