By Paul Acquaro
Guitarist Ava Mendoza is depicted with prickly pear cacti infront of a barbed-wire fence on the cover of her new recording New Spells. It's a fine visualization of the sounds that crackle forth from her electric guitar.
This is her sound. Some recent group settings featuring Mendoza, like Mayan Space Station with William Parker and Gerald Cleaver, and Nate Wooley's Columbia Icefield project, are elevated by her bristling energy (and in terms of the latter, a neat contrast of energies with pedal steel player Susan Alcorn). On New Spells, Mendoza is not only front and center, but alone in carrying the whole recording, which she does artfully.
The recording begins with 'Sun Gun.' Gummy chords wobble in the background, steeped in reverb, while melodic notes are plucked out. Then, the song opens into a passage that recalls an unexpected Nirvana-like chord progression mixed with the wispy thin guitar lines a la Television. 'New Ghosts' goes down a different path, the beginning is sludgier, but not too heavy, the deeper tones bend and ooze, and eventually are extruded into long, stretchy tendrils. A bit of unresolved tension remains in the air throughout, especially when the echo effects are turned up and the atmosphere gets crunchy and dense.
The last three songs are composed by her contemporaries, saxophonist John Dikeman, and bassists Trevor Dunn and Devin Hoff. Dunn's 'Ampulex Compressa' begins with a spikiness that fits Mendoza's style well, and then unfolds with fractal like wonder. Hoff's 'Apart From' has a haunting folkiness that Mendoza delivers with an enveloping approach. Finally, Dikemans 'Don't Look' vascillates between delicate arpeggiated melodies, trembling chord tones, and delightfully guitaristic textures.
Overall, New Spells is a bit grunge, a bit Hendrix, and all very much a unique creation. There is a completeness to each track, a collection of not just sonic exploration but rather songs with distinct narratives and personalities.