Lightning struck twice this year. Once during “My Darkness“, and the latter soon thereafter in watching easily the most beautifully orchestrated video of the year. Y La Bamba came coincidentally at the same time Nick Jaina performed in a small housing cooperative in Madison, however the former, despite waiting and watching with tempered patience, has stayed cooped over in Portland, Oregon. I have struggled in the past two years in returning to folk music evidenced by my aghast response to seeing the term ‘indie folk’ appear out of nowhere (and my subsequent wish that term disappears or evolves into a more befitting, creative use of genre-ology). My love for Stars dimmed, became diluted when every member of Broken Social Scene suddenly had a solo album, and even Andrew Bird started to lose my attention span despite Noble Beast proving to be a rightful follow-up to Armchair Apocrypha. In pressing play and letting the reel roll on the music video for “Juniper”, Luz Elena Mendoza’s voice and Matthew Gamlen’s visuals unknowingly gathered up those fading wisps of folk and reconstituted that adoration in a single, three-minute span. Suddenly reinvigorated by Westward folk, Lupon demanded to my subconscious to be heard…
Harmonies are common place these days, yet Ben Meyercord and Mike Kitson’s compliment and soar. Periodically a voice is highlighted over another, as you can hear, instead of one collective bowl where each organic ingredient is combined and blended into an indistinct melange. This happens quite often during the album, attesting more to the musicians’ talents than merely just framing Luz’s orchestrally lush singing. Her vocals hold a certain sweetness of handmade candies in a corner store. It’s malleable and controlled with the taffy of her notes thinning as it stretches on “Soy Capitan” or dips down the scales into the dark cherry introduction to “Abducted.”
Luz Elena Mendoza herself is the daughter of Mexican immigrants to California, so rooted in her culture by the graces of her parents that she remarked in an interview with Zaph Mann of opbmusic.org, “I can’t relate to my friends’ music because I never heard it.” And with that, there is a certain versatility to their music that our similar Midwestern Dark Dark Dark could use a dash of (their Wild Go is the other side of my mini folk revival). Following the lo-fi “Monster” and her somber lyrics of “He’s your brother. He came to kill us all. He’s a monster. He came to kill us all…”, “November” and David Kyle’s guitar evokes the drifting lightness of “7/4 (Shoreline)” in a distinctly indie pop song which shifts gears towards the end with a violin. Though Y La Bamba’s restraint keeps the what-would-be-symphony at bay, dropping back into just harmonies and percussion.
The album, inexplicably elaborate in style without the overbearing anchors of ambition that continues to say “too much is too much” for the likes of some experimental folk artists, is re-assuredly haunting. “Crocodile Eyes” uses an acoustic guitar to draw your ears upon creaking, weathered floorboards. Luz Elena’s voice, as brooding chants prey upon your ears from beyond cobwebbed walls, leaves a quivering impression that she may be there to help you, or merely to ensnare you as her voice effortlessly blends into the harmonies. Later on, “Winter’s Skin” is a more uplifting polka that elicits sepia dreams of a carousel youth with mystical beckonings of “Sing me to sleep” over accordions and flaps of winged strings.
The deeper you delve into Luz Elena and Y La Bamba, the more fascinating the Portland folk group becomes. With Lupon, you’re lead down an unseen path, often with only a few feet visible around you. Every so often, a fog of either lo-fi or subtle folk dissipates to unveil a natural grove of embellished, invigorating musical beauty. Luz Elena, Mike, Eric et al are more than willing to guide you among those diverse winding musical trails, with you left to their consciously wandering itinerary.