Review: Floating Features by La Luz

Surf-rockers’ psychedelic third album is the perfect soundtrack for your scorched summer.

La Luz performing in New Orleans, source: Wikimedia Commons

Rating: 7/10

Favourite tracks: ‘California Finally’, ‘The Creature’, ‘Floating Features’, ‘Lonely Dozer’

Despite its roots in the 60s, psych-rock is still very much alive: La Luz’s third studio album Floating Features is firm proof of this. The all-female quartet’s sound is a dark, warped take on classic surf-rock. The usual languid, jangly guitars, and summer melodies are twisted and more intense; rich harmonic textures are tinged with unnerving dissonance. If Tim Burton had been the artistic director of The Beach Boys it might have sounded like this.

La Luz are not alone in this Gothic take on the surf sound: their music forms part of a genre that has sprung up mostly on the USA’s west coast over the last decade. Bands like Oh Sees (ghoulish creatures feature regularly on their album covers) and Shannon and the Clams accompany them in this particular musical space. Indeed, this year La Luz played the Beach Goth festival in LA, whose ‘Danse Macabre’ aesthetic is an ideal setting for this album. Beach Goth is hosted by The Growlers, who are themselves pioneers of the 21st century surf-noir sound. Floating Features is defiant in the way it carves out an original niche in a genre that is as saturated as the reverb-heavy soundscapes that have come to define it.

The opening song, also called ‘Floating Features’, is a confident, dramatic instrumental: lead and bass guitars align in a spiraling riff that descends into the depths of its own sonic landscape. It makes you feel like you’ve been whisked away on a Mad Max convoy across the desert, and heralds the doom-laden music that is to come. This song embodies the cliché of a stadium-filler (but pick your cavernous space: it wouldn’t sound small in the Grand Canyon), and it would work well as a set-opener. This album smacks you in the face and tells you to keep listening.

Thematically, as might be expected from the Dali-inspired cover – where the band are framed by Triffid-like plants, a floating pair of red lips, and a pile of tentacles – this album frequently explores the realm of dreams. Songwriter Shena Cleveland often negotiates the unsettling space between sleep and consciousness, singing of the “metallic shimmering of invisible things” (‘Cicada’), “eyes rising out of the cream” (‘Loose Teeth’), and of sleep paralysis monsters (‘The Creature’). This focus on the surreal is supported by subtly unnerving chord progressions: for instance, the verse on ‘Cicada’ alternates between the major and minor of the same chord, resulting in an unsettling lack of tonal clarity.

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Cleveland’s lyrics are usually uncomplicated, which often complements the urgency of the music; but she sometimes risks sounding simplistic (“Will we ever have our own house? / Will we ever be in one place long?”). She is at her descriptive best when she paints the surreal images found in her dreams; but writing about dreams, while this sounds appropriately psychedelic, occasionally ends up seeming directionless. ‘California Finally’ is one of the strongest tracks because it combines imaginative lyricism (“Sun eye swollen across the ocean”) with direction and purpose: it’s a song of defiance, an answer to Cleveland’s critics about moving from Seattle to California, the natural home of the surf sound (“I made up my mind some time ago, / No one’s gonna tell me where I can go”).

This defiance may derive from an anxiety that some will lament La Luz’s new foray into a glossier production style. The band’s first two albums have all the lo-fi grit and charm of a band who could only record with whatever amalgamation of equipment they could find in their garages. Now, in the shining studios of Hollywood, and with the know-how of the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach (who has helped produce glittery pop songs like Lana Del Rey’s ‘West Coast’), La Luz’s sound shimmers with hi-fi polish. It’s true that such a severe change in style risks damaging the identity of a band. But the gleaming production of Floating Features works well because La Luz haven’t lost sight of their DNA by trying to over-produce and add studio gimmicks: they’ve merely let their own sound breathe.

La Luz’s arrangements are deceptively – and satisfyingly – complex: their songs offer a richness that belies the simplicity usually associated with this genre. Even so, many of the musical elements are strikingly nostalgic. The organ solos often sound like The Doors’ Ray Manzarek has suddenly arrived in the studio, and Shena Cleveland happily admits that her twangy guitar tone is lifted from 50s surf-rock pioneers like Link Wray or The Shadows. But collectively they manage to avoid sounding derivative. This is partly due to their keen ear for a good melody – ‘Lonely Dozer’, for example, is wonderfully catchy – but also because of the sublime vocal harmonies that wash over the album. Lena Simon’s bass playing is also worth mentioning for the driving urgency it provides beneath the woozy psych sounds.

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Although there is no overtly political message in sight, Floating Features manages to tap into the neuroses of how it feels to be emerging as an adult in these times. Aside from the general impression of impending doom which saturates the album (their music has aptly been described as “doom-wop”), there is in particular a sense of mental suffocation in some of the songs, especially the ones inspired by dreams. ‘The Creature’, one of the album’s three singles, has been part of their live sets since 2016, when the most recent US election happened. The line, “The creature let me know that it would be walking with me”, and the physicality of Cleveland’s description of her nightmare’s monster, could just as aptly be attributed to bogeymen like Trump – similarly an oppressive presence that harasses in more ways than merely psychological. The last song on the album, ‘Don’t Leave Me on the Earth’, is a touchingly honest expression of anxiety at the world’s current state.

This album is a reflection of a band reaching maturity. The songs are better structured and less chaotic than those in their earlier albums, and they haven’t lost any of their original intensity in the process of cleaning up their sound. With Floating Features, La Luz have annexed an end-of-the-world vibe to the mellow sounds of surf-rock: an ideal combination to provide the soundtrack to this summer’s worryingly apocalyptic heatwaves!