Y La Bamba
Tender Loving Empire
You know, sometimes, but only occasionally, the story is bigger than the album release. As great as it may be (and this one is ground-breakingly good), the saga behind these songs looms even larger than the songs themselves. That is what is at play with this fabulous recording. The tale is nothing short of an epic. Chapters of which would serve as thought-provoking subjects for several films.
Luz Elena Mendoza’s life story reads like fiction, but it is true and fascinating and worthy of many, many more albums to come. I could not possibly begin to tell- and that is not my job here. But a short Powerpoint presentation might look something like:
- Grew up in a strict Catholic family the only daughter of a Mexican immigrant father and mother who was American, born in Mexico.
- Family settled in Bay Area
- Family moved to Ashland where father worked in a lumber mill.
- Luz Elena spent her girlhood summers in the orchards of the San Joaquin Valley- where she acquired a love for traditional Mexican folk music.
- In 2003, on a spiritual quest, Luz Elena traveled to New Zealand and India. In India she contracted dysentery and giardia, losing 60 pounds, while battling insomnia and a near loss of sanity. Worst of all she lost her faith.
- Upon her return to the US, after initial punk forays, she began to craft songs of a different style and play open mics, etc
- She eventually met a few like-minded musicians in Ashland, then in Portland; a convocation musicians who understood the eclectic nature of her music, who hoped to help her achieve her artistic revelations.
- A band coalesced.
- Touring ensued.
- Eventually Decemberists guitarist (and perennial nemesis of Stephen Colbert), Chris Funk, became attracted to the idea of producing a record with Luz Elena and the band
It isn’t like Luz Elena has difficulty drawing attention. She is a statuesque six-feet tall, with a veritable graphic novel illustrated upon her body. She is availed of an amazingly unique vocal instrument that calls to mind comparisons to some of the best vocalists in the idiom of the popular song. But she is no sum of anyone’s parts. Her voice is only her own.
But, here. Let me try:
The dulcet smoky delivery of Peggy Lee or Dusty Springfield singing the sophisticated blues of the ’30s Billy Holiday. Tonality, somewhere between the haunting Astrud Gilberto and the haunted Beth Orton. Songs windblown and wuthering, like Josephine Foster or Joanna Newsom. The plaintive duskiness of Tracey Thorne of Everything But The Girl morphs into the dusky plaintivity of Mimi Parker of Low. Hovering over it all are the murmuring essences of Chavela Vargas and Lydia Mendoza.
“Monster” is Low-like- a dusty, dreamy tale of a murdering, incestuous uncle. Luz Elena sings over her simple acoustic guitar accompaniment, a lonesome lament- harrowing in it’s simplicity of execution and delivery. A whining organ toys and winds in the background creating as much agitation as support. Soothing sirens sing backing harmonies, calling to mind those in “O Brother Where Art Thou.” Enchanting.
Meanwhile, “November” is more uptempo, in a mood reminiscent of “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None The Richer from back in the late ‘90s. David Kyle’s handful of a guitar figure in the verses melts into a jangly Cranberries-ish confection at the turns, at which point Luzelena evokes the ululations of Dolores O’Riordan. A nice change of pace.
Drummer Mike Kitson’s ephemeral vibraphone washes nicely compliment Eric Schrepel’s timeless accordion phrasings, with session strings underneath- on the lush, sensual ballad “Soy Capitan;” wherein Luzelena’s angelically smoldering contralto remains moltenly motile just under a fine gray ash of surface. And a great chorus. How exquisite .
The sultry lullaby, “Crocadile Eyes,” relates stylistically to “Monster,” but has an early blues quality about it that harkens to the earliest days of recording. A traditional spiritual from times of long ago gone by. A sonorous bowed saw contributes ethereal fog. Kittson and bassist Ben Meyercord provide warmly moving, anachronistically opaque harmony vocals.
Here and everywhere, whether it is Luz Elena backing herself, or contributions from Kittson and Meyercord, the supporting vocal harmonies are rich and full and, at all times, really nicely delineated. Special.
The insistent cloudy waltz of “Abduction” speaks unflinchingly and frankly to Luz Elena’s familial issues- “I’m sorry dear father/I’m your only girl/I’m your only daughter…” Above majestic harmonies, soars Luzelena’s poignantly gorgeous vocal. A voice so quixotically intimate and distant. Come closer, stay away. The heartrending final bars: like psychic fingernails clawing at the fabric of existence. You think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not.
“Juniper” is a pastoral pastiche with all three contributing vocally to the forlorn campfire quality of the song; with only concisely subtle bass, drum and guitar augmentation. The sound of a tumbleweed in motion across a hot dry desert basin.
The instrumental admixture that blended so well on “Soy Capitan,” strings, Kittson’s fleeting vibes and Eric Schrepel’s wistful accordion, reprise their positions on “Festival Of Panic,” a song with an intoxicating chorus that swirls around the line “Who said I could have it all?”
An unique conclave of musicians create a very special musical milieu here. Luz Elena’s effortless vocal intonations are simply flawless. Cascading guitar/vibe filigrees shimmer into the extended fade, where disembodied voices ghost an eerie calm. Somewhere along the line, “Festival Of Panic,” melds into the busker’s waltz of “Winter’s Skin.”
Oompah-pah bass, accordion and spidery nylon stringed acoustic guitar flit and flicker behind the moody haze of Luzelena’s otherworldly delivery. Yes. Otherworldly. Not from around here. Midnight cats in summer heat- a pounding heart. “Sing me to sleep.”
Violins and cellos, like dreams, enthresh the scenery; a sudden chill of autumn in the air. A circus unfolds, mysterious musical saw moaning amid the ferris-wheel and carousel dance. Bertolt Brecht would be proud. Come hear the music play. Come to the cabaret old chum.
The elyptical tango of “Isla De Hierva Buena” is supplemented by noble brass interludes. Luz Elena sings the song in Spanish- although that is not really at all detrimental, as just hearing her mouth random syllables with her sensational voice would suffice.
“Memories Of A Poor Start” again revisits issues Luz Elena faced while growing up. A solitary electric guitar supports her marvelous vocal gift.
Back in early 2002, I was fortunate enough to catch a set from an impressive young trio called Noise For Pretend. They were an adventurous jazz ensemble, propelled, on vocals and bass, by a young woman named Esperanza Spaulding- at the time a recent graduate of Benson High School. I consider myself blessed to have a copy of their only full length album, “Happy You Near.” It’s apparently no longer in print.
Way back then, in early 2002, after seeing the band and seeing and hearing Esperanza play and sing, I predicted that she would be a huge star one day. Nowadays, the girl is world huge with a bullet in Jazz universe. And while she never fails to mention her difficult Portland upbringing in her bio, Noise For Pretend are sadly nowhere to be found- which is a downright shame, because that was a really good band and she should be proud of it.
Anyway, I only bring this up, because, I predict, here and now, without hesitation, without equivocation, that one day, much sooner than later, Luz Elena Mendoza is going to be a name on everyone‘s lips, nationwide. Worldwide. She has only just begun to explore the gift of her fantastic vocal instrument. A Stradivarius voice, to be sure. And she plays it like a true prodigy. It will be exciting to see where her talent takes her.
I challenge any of you to listen to this album three times and then try not to listen to it over and over again after that. It is impossible. These songs and their impeccable arrangements bore a hole into the shadows of the unconscious, where they reside with other treasured thoughts and recollections across the arc of all being.
Read SP’s review of Esperanza Spaulding and Noise For Pretend in the Two Louies June 2002 Pgs 9 and 17
© 2011 Buko Magazine