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La Luz finds the sweet spot between surf-rock jangle and the indie-pop blues

Beautiful Luzers

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It's not easy, or common, to surf in Elliott Bay. But Seattle quartet La Luz cranks out a reverb-drenched hybrid of throwback rock and indie pop that conjures visions of beach blankets and bonfires on the Emerald City shores, usually known more for geoducks than slinking surf-guitar riffs.

Earlier this year, La Luz released the enchanting and too-short Damp Face EP (the cassette version of which quickly sold out and was re-duped by Burger Records) and a split 7-inch single with T.V. Dream, both of which show off a level of stylistic confidence rare in a band that's barely been together a year.

"I spent a long time kind of mulling the idea of the band in my head," singer-guitarist Shana Cleveland tells the Scene by phone from Seattle. "So I think I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted it to be and what I wanted it to sound like."

It was a good idea. And while the band largely owes its sound to a stratum of rock that has been mined extensively — early R&B and soul, '60s surf and Darlene Love-style vocal-group pop — Cleveland and her accomplices channel their forebears with distinctive verve.

Cleveland and drummer Marian Li Pino played together in The Curious Mystery, a band with similar inspirations, and in a sense this new endeavor represents a more direct, less meandering and more fully realized amalgamation. Li Pino and keyboardist Alice Sandahl also played together in The Pica Beats, and rather than contempt, all that familiarity has bred a level of chemistry that belies the project's youth.

"We all really get along on a personal level, so it's really easy to throw ideas at each other and collaborate on things," Cleveland says. "Everybody kind of has their own thing they are really good at." Bassist Abbey Blackwell, for instance, is classically trained. "I'll just come up with things sort of intuitively," Cleveland says, "and [Blackwell] will be able to explain what's happening."

What's happening in "Sure as Spring" is that the song manages to tip its hat to "Hit the Road Jack," fire off a dive-bombing guitar stab and burst into a galloping chord progression, all in the space of about six seconds. "One thing I've found, as I've moved around from town to town / It's so hard to get my blood to settle down," Cleveland sings, before eventually landing this lovesick punch of a lyric: "When you were mine / I never had the time / Now I kinda wanna die / And that's the surest way to know that I'm alive."

Where Northwest indie rock has sometimes aped '60s pop in ways that cut the sugar with a kind of punk anguish — see Kicking Giant's straight-up jacking of "Be My Baby" on their lo-fi mess-terpiece "She's Real," circa 1994 — La Luz surrounds the sweetness (three-part doo-wops and all) with languid, psychedelic atmosphere. Cleveland's guitar weaves and ducks between Li Pino's lively drumming, Blackwell's sturdy bass lines and Sandahl's tilting, somnambulant organ figures.

While it isn't always at the center of the mix, Cleveland's wiry surf-style guitar work is, to some degree, the star of the show, so two reference points are sort of inevitable. First, there's style king Dick Dale. One could say Cleveland's approach, while it shares the echoic aesthetic and Middle Eastern inflections, is more "Esperanza" than "Misirlou" — that is, more flowing and melodic than frantic and jumpy. Second, by association, there's the director whose ear for iconic soundtracking introduced Dale to at least one new generation of fans.

"Tarantino has excellent taste in music, so I take that as a compliment," Cleveland says, referring to fans and YouTube commenters rooting for a movie placement. "Something about surf music seems to work really well with film. ... We're big Tarantino fans, and hope that someday someone will send him our music."

In the meantime, La Luz is off to an auspicious start on their own, even if they don't end up as the house band at a dance-party-turned-bloodbath (à la The 5.6.7.8.'s in Kill Bill Vol. 1). In the midst of their first cross-country tour, they have a full-length album, recorded in what Cleveland calls "the only non-trailer unit" in a suburban Washington state trailer park, already mixed and ready to go — though the label releasing it is keeping details (including the label's own identity) under wraps for now. And the band has been busy writing.

"We've got a lot of songs," Cleveland says. So get those beach blankets ready.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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