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La Luz subverts the surf-rock sound on Weirdo Shrine

B+
B+

La Luz

Album: Weirdo Shrine
Label: Hardly Art

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Everything that was once considered cool or cutting edge almost always comes back around again. It happened with leg warmers, it happened with acid-wash jeans, and now La Luz is helping to bring back early ’60s surf rock. It’s odd to think that a group based out of Seattle—Puget Sound is not a place particularly renowned for its tasty waves—would be the ones to update that particular sound for a 21st-century audience, but here we are.

Produced by prolific studio maven Ty Segall, Weirdo Shrine picks La Luz up right where the band left off from its 2013 debut It’s Alive, but with a far greater degree of refinement and sophistication. The ensuing years between that record’s release and this one were quite tough for the group. There’s been band-member turnover; some time off for singer-guitarist Shana Cleveland to work on her solo album with The Sandcastles, Oh Man, Cover The Ground; and a truly horrific high-speed collision with a tractor-trailer that nearly ended it all. That the band even made it to this point is truly remarkable.

Recorded out of a Southern California surf shop (naturally), Weirdo Shrine is a vibe record all the way. It’s a dreamy, rich mélange of clean Fender guitar tones, soaked in reverb, twisted with vibrato, and mixed with far-off multi-tracked vocal harmonies, tight snare-driven drums, and subtle bass-chord changes that hold everything steady underneath. But more than just a rehash of ’60s surf-pop pioneers like Dick Dale, The Ventures, and The Del-Tones, La Luz gets far more subversive, marrying the familiar sun-drenched melodies with overall darker themes.

From album opening “Sleep Till They Die,” you know you’re not in for a fun day at the beach. The decidedly minor key track is marked mainly by Cleveland’s ghostly vocal intonation as she repeats the chorus, “Daylight, open eyes / They’ll sleep til they die.” The musical tempo is picked up with the next song “You Disappear,” but the noir-ish themes and attitudes remain a constant.

The real highlight of Weirdo Shrine comes from Cleveland’s guitar playing. Nearly every song on the record features either a solo or a break for the singer to take over and shine with her instrument. They ultimately become the musical throughways that bind the entire record together across a diverse array of shifting moods and tempos. Cleveland is a true guitar hero, evincing real life out every note she coaxes from the stings in such a smooth, seemingly effortless manner.

The last time that the surf-rock aesthetic sounded anywhere close to this vibrant or vital was when Quentin Tarantino decided to bookend Pulp Fiction with “Miserlou” by Dick Dale and “Surf Rider” by The Lively Ones. Just like in that film, La Luz uses the music as a framework to underscore the more unpleasant aspects of human nature. Weirdo Shrine is a burnt-orange filter thrown over a world of dark gray.