Surf rock is similar to the blues in that there’s often an almost-Pavlovian response that occurs when you hear that classic Dick Dale twangy guitar, or the signature chugging blues strumming pattern; you’re instantly transported to a sunny beach, or immediately anticipating a creaky old voice moaning, “I woke up one morning.” In the case of both musical styles, it’s not easy to deviate from an archetypal, deep-rooted sound. But when something unexpected leaps out of the speakers—music that puts you at ease with its familiarity and throws you for a loop with its risks and inventiveness—the results are explosive.
This has proven to be the case for La Luz, a four-piece, all-female group from Seattle. On the group’s second album, Weirdo Shrine, they’ve crystallized the most poignant elements of surf rock into a carnival of ecstatic leaps and sharp turns. Throughout, the masterful, dreamlike harmonies and front woman Shana Cleveland’s show-stealing guitar work rub shoulders with angst-ridden lyrics and a deep-seated melancholy to create a record that hardly brings to mind a cheery day on the waves.
Even at their most sublime, La Luz usher us into harrowing worlds of lurid, perplexing color and haunting emotion. Take “True Love Knows,” which begins with a warbling reverb-soaked guitar figure and sparse drums before Cleveland spins a tale of desperate solitude. “I never want to hear your voice,” she deadpans in an off-kilter coo before her bandmates’ angelic harmonies waft into place to sing the titular refrain. On “With Davey,” a jaunty bassline and dagger-like jabs of guitar give way to a painful declaration—“Life is short so take it slow”—somehow capturing James Joyce’s bleakness and Jack Johnson’s chill-out ethos in one deft phrase. “Four-part, girl-group harmonies have a tendency to sound sort of ethereal and angelic. But a lot of our music, lyrically and tonally, tends to dwell in shadows,” Cleveland points out. “Then again, it’s also often music that’s meant to dance and party to, so there’s a lot of duality there.”
That duality extends beyond Cleveland’s harsh lyric—at least somewhat inspired by a near-fatal car crash in 2013—to the push and pull of hypnotic grooves and ferocious explosions that cycle in and out throughout the album. Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Hey Papi,” the hulking mess of a track halfway into the record that burns with spastic fury reminiscent of art-rockers Deerhoof, ricocheting in all directions like Chinese New Year fireworks.
Cleveland already demonstrated her virtuosic guitar chops on this year’s Oh Man, Cover the Ground, released as Shana Cleveland and the Sandcastles. But while that record found her winding and weaving intricate finger-picked figures, here she wrangles menacing, bristling notes and tones out of her six-string; her solo on “You Disappear” is euphoric, a colossal monolith of sound that rips the song asunder. It’s the musical equivalent of the big earthquake that everyone seems to be talking about.
Weirdo Shrine was produced by garage-rock guru Ty Segall, whose obsession with distortion and fuzz gives these songs a gritty edge that constantly rubs up against the elegant harmonies and loose grooves. Segall and Cleveland met at a show they played together years ago in Portland. “He bought one of everything at the merch table,” Cleveland told me with a laugh. When it came time for La Luz to record, Segall offered to man the boards, and the sessions took place, incidentally, in a converted surf shop outside of Los Angeles. He later described the record as a “world… burning with colors [he’d] never seen, like mauve that is living.”
It should probably come as no surprise that Cleveland’s favorite track on the album, “Oranges,” is an instrumental that leaves its meaning in the hands of the listener. “[It] feels really cinematic to me… it just feels wide open to the imagination,” she explains. Yet it’s not just that track, but the whole album, that maintains a sense of being ripe with possibility. On Weirdo Shrine, Cleveland and her bandmates carve pieces—some small, some heaping chunks—out of the surf rock canon to make it their own. They may never be able (or even want) to entirely escape the bucolic nature of surf rock, but by blurring the line between the raw and the refined, sounding tender, brittle, heartfelt, and hopeless all at once, they don’t need to.