Review: Ala Muerte – Santa Elena

My Bloody Valentine knew how to bury and obscure the heart of a poppy melody or a dazzling hook in a mountain of carefully manufactured noise and guitar squalor. Bands like Rodan or The Sonora Pine figured out the value of letting an emotive frontwoman belt out a refrain over a textured underbelly of guitars. Bianca Bibiloni, the Queens, N.Y. native lurking behind the Ala Muerte moniker, is a student of both methods, as evidenced by the measured and melancholy-laced shoegazing of Santa Elena, Ala Muerte’s full-length debut on Public Guilt. But, still, despite the attention to craft, there is something about the record that does not work as well as its predecessors and forebears, something that doesn’t quite click into place. In short, Santa Elena is a sometimes-beautiful, if occasionally imperfect, record.

The songs on Santa Elena are precious, almost to a fault. Guitars shimmer and sparkle and fade, field recordings flesh out the atmosphere and ambiance, and Bibiloni’s voice, a vehicle that seems to constantly push the diaphragm to its limits, is ever-present. Sometimes, the combination works, as on the lush album-opener “All Is Gone,” the tender “Red Flags” and “Choose Your Own Ending” or the mysterious “Loki,” which combines lo-fi recording techniques, a subdued, vaguely Latin guitar ballad and supporting vocals that whip through the background of the song like a feverish microburst.

Elsewhere, the presentation seems overcooked, even hammy. In this category, there’s “Grim,” which takes the focus off dissonant and ghostly guitars with multiple, wailing vocal tracks that have you yearning for the subtlety of a whisper, murmur or a simple coo. Or there’s “Demeter,” another beautiful guitar-driven gem that loses its direction with layered vocals that, again, push the diaphragm a little too much.

There’s plenty else to love about Santa Elena. A set of instrumentals or near-instrumentals on the 10-song, 45-minute disc are frighteningly good. The first is the moving “1892,” a too-beautiful, too-short chamber piece where Bibiloni pairs viola with an understated guitar line. (It’s two and a half minutes that really steal the spotlight from the rest of the disc. We need more like this.) Then there’s “She,” where all the elements of the song – a spare guitar line, tiny ribbons of oohs and aahs, what sounds like a synthesizer – dwell below a phantom fog of white noise, like fish swimming, trapped, below the icy surface of a winter lake. (The verdict, though, is still out on “Fireweed,” the record-closing offering that descends – or ascends, depending on your interpretation – from a ballad of noisy guitars into a full-throated rumble, complete with thrashing drums.)

The true accomplishment of the record, though, might be that it’s a solo effort. Critique as you might Bibiloni’s songs or her sentiments, it’s difficult to imagine how one person assembled Santa Elena. The record offers an impressive breadth and range of performance for one person, the kind of range one would expect more from a collection of musicians than a solo artist. There are tender knots of guitar, not to dissimilar from Rodan, one minute (“All Is Gone,” “Demeter”), spacey atmospherics the next (“Grim”). The record is diverse enough to demand repeated listenings and cohesive enough to stand up to them. It’s not a perfect document and the gems are scattered among some lesser works but it remains an engaging disc and, most definitely, a promising one. – Delusions of Adequacy, Dec. 11, 2008

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