By Max Freedman
Somewhere along the way, one of the decade’s most overlooked bands decided to begin referring to itself as a group instead. Brooklyn’s Ava Luna—the five-piece art-pop outfit of multi-talents Carlos Hernandez, Felicia Douglass, Becca Kauffman, Julian Fader, and Ethan Bassford—reached this decision at some point while conceiving Moon 2, its fourth and most straightforward album to date.
With how many other projects its members are involved in, Ava Luna’s genesis of an album as unimposing as Moon 2 deserves special attention. Here’s a short but likely incomplete list of the members’ other work, because they just do that much: Kauffman is the performance artist and avant-pop figure Jennifer Vanilla; Douglass is in the electropop group Gemma and tours as part of Dirty Projectors; Hernandez and Fader are part of the band NADINE and together run the Brooklyn recording studio Gravesend Recordings, where Speedy Ortiz and Frankie Cosmos recorded their 2018 albums. Each project that the members are involved in informs the group’s songwriting in some way, and on Moon 2, the group sounds less worried than ever about preventing its other interests from entering the foray.
Moon 2 is Ava Luna’s tidiest attempt at cramming the members’ expansive breadth of influences into a 40-minute collection. Its consistency and coherence are unmatched by previous Ava Luna albums, and this quality welcomes new listeners with open arms. Take “Mine,” for instance. To longtime Ava Luna fans, the influence of Kauffman’s performance art background will be readily apparent within the song’s first minute, but to newcomers, “Mine” is a deeply groovy and enticing pop song doused in a deep, blue flame. “Deli Run” is likewise as funky as it is plain fun, restricting Ava Luna’s notoriously thick basslines and shrieking guitar harmonics to guiding elements in a swerving pop jam. “Set It Off” assertively and sassily wags a finger via a classically offbeat vocal performance from Kauffman, and synthetic clatter that resembles a more tightly wound take on a handful of Electric Balloon/Infinite House-era Ava Luna highlights. The group’s trademarks remain apparent to the diehards, but never before have they been packaged so approachably.
Interestingly, where Ava Luna’s newly explicit group dynamic and focus on relatively unchallenging pop sounds and structures sometimes falter is on Hernandez’ songs. It’s his voice that appears most often across the Ava Luna catalogue, so fans have sometimes seen him as the group’s de facto front-person, but Moon 2 suggests that he truly has taken a backseat. “Accessible,” the surprising, auto-tuned opener, sounds like his brainchild (though Kauffman actually provides the Fernandez-esque vocals), but it dips too deep into the trendy pool of musical roboticism (and might actually be the album’s least accessible moment). “Leaf,” another Hernandez song, is aptly named; like a leaf, it’s pretty, but it’s motionless even when it’s colorful. None of this is to say that Hernandez has forgotten how to make great music–Ava Luna is, after all, a group. His charms appear in the aforementioned guitar harmonics on “Deli Run” and on the enticing whisper during the chorus of “Centerline,” a thrilling reminder of how special and flexible his voice is.
Hernandez really does recede to the background, though, and this often feels intentional; Moon 2 is dominated by Kauffman and Douglass’ voices more often than on any previous Ava Luna album. Never before has Ava Luna felt so deeply like a group versus a band, and the songs’ general smoothness (even at their most bizarre—here’s looking at you, “Set It Off”) is a fascinating emergence of this mindset. Moon 2 is this decade’s most overlooked group at its most communal–its collaborative and amiable nature inviting new ears in a way that an already deeply exciting outfit never quite has before.