The Pacific Northwest, as we all know, is chock full of hidden gems that not many people venture out for, but those who do tend to constantly return. Maybe it’s the remnant spirit of the 1800s Gold Rush, but there’s still precious discoveries to be had. One such in recent years has been Y La Bamba, a folk group that bucks the instantaneous “folk from Oregon” comparisons, or those in the genre for that matter. Luz Elena Mendoza and her band of musicians, prior to Court the Storm, performed a reminiscing, sometimes sorrowful yet with the melodic beauty of a rolling fog over the lush greenery of the region. Before 2010’s breakthrough Lupon was Alida St., a debut that felt like a collection of songs stepping forth with trepidation, but with an ambition rooted in Luz’s family heritage. Court the Storm is Alida St., but broader in scope with a fiery confidence that embraces traditional Mexican folk whole heartily with its American neighbor.
The liberating “Squawk” opens Court the Storm with finger-plucked acoustic and the harmonies that led Lupon to become simply one of the best albums released this decade. Experienced live, the song lifts the public under its winged staff and notes. Recorded, it achieves the same feeling with the group singing creating the cloud that Luz teeters around, then soars above with a tambourine. Immediately after, the listener experience what so pleasantly sets the album apart from its predecessors and the rest in the genre. “Bendito” is one of four Spanish tracks, over a third of the album. (Lupon had one, Alida St. had two.) With a swing accented by electric guitar and an accordion, the song is immediately telling of the piece as a whole; Y La Bamba has become more cohesive, more collaborative, more a living breathing group that has shed any doubt for the future. Throughout, everyone participates in singing regardless of language, and Luz’s voice has grown since 2010-confirming that touring with Neko Case has lent a boost. But back to “Bendito.” While others may play on the safe side, fall into formulas, “Bendito” takes the rhythm and drops unabashedly it into an abyss leaving the listener to look up to Y La Bamba sweetly singing as it plunges into a wrenching verse nourished by raw expression…then returns to normal as if nothing had passed.
Finally receiving recording treatment, previously only (unless you live within driving distance of the Pacific Northwest) available via a Mississippi Studios session video, “Houghson Boys” lets acoustic simplicity wash over it without repeat listens smoothing down the song. Halfway through, the song nearly takes an ecclesiastical undertone with a harmonious beauty around a sermon to salve:
“And share your wounds and give them all a name. It’s all right to be confused and in the end we will be okay. And please stand by and dance in the pouring rain. And in the foggiest night, we’ll meet up with our saints.”
Court the Storm‘s surprise in all actuality is “Idaho’s Genius”, where Ben Meyercord takes over lead singing on a song that practically steals the show. Starting unassumingly with a troubled soul over pensive plucking, it feels heavy (“your stillness has haunted all of your vulnerable eyes”) with a cavernous percussion that gives in (“we are armies of active minds”) to encouraging melodies that top their previous melody writing, like “Winter’s Skin.”
While Lupon had more uplifting songs that take more from the American side of folk, Court the Storm‘s upbeat moments are all the Spanish songs; once again, it feels more confident, more self-aware of an album than previous releases. “Viuda Encabronada” and “Michoacan” are the foremost songs that musically are a joy to listen to. “Viuda Encabronada” has been turning their concerts into lively parties. “Michoacan” may just be the song that draws those who never learnt Spanish to pick up a book due to the fact you’ll likely be singing along without thinking about it. It’s hard for music to achieve that!
Far more confident than Lupon, and far more varied, Y La Bamba wholly embraces what has made them so successful to this point and runs with it (including bringing along Neko Case on “Court the Storm”). It feels as liberating as running down a mountainside to the clear streams below. If you listen to folk and haven’t caught on to Y La Bamba, the new album proves there’s no valid excuse-especially now that this gem of a group has such a promising future ahead of them.