If you drive past the 200 block of South La Brea, there is a lamp shop, a pet shop, and a little glass door that says “Casting Agency” above it. Inside you’ll find one of LA’s most stereotypical rituals, where men & women from all walks of life vie for the attention and popularity of the Hollywood producer. It’s a dream factory for some of them. It’s also a place where Los Angeles outsiders learn what the city is really like, beyond the sun and surf and celebrities, where every brightly-lit surface eventually faces a cloud.
Indeed, the lessons learned by the Allah-Las – guitarists Miles Michaud and Pedrum Siadatian, bassist Spencer Dunham, drummer Matthew Correia – since their auspicious formation in 2008 have been tempered with experience. Now, with their third album Calico Review (their first for Mexican Summer), their experience transforms once more, this time into wisdom. The band’s trajectory, formed around mutual appreciation for the same kinds of music and a host of shared experiences, focuses on both the outer trappings of their home and surroundings, and the through line of darkness that suffuses life in LA county.
Where the Allah-Las display their insight, and what really shines across the 12 songs that comprise Calico Review, is the way that the group has pivoted from specific influences and nods to the music they love, to crafting the feelings of freedom, grit, and melancholy in their music. That feeling – the peerless capture of music long in the tradition and mood of California pop, the sound that’s captured the essence of the LA experience - aligns with their stylistic technique and their experience in the studio environment to create their strongest album to date, one which showcases their developments in songwriting and arrangements.
The process began with their self-titled debut, which captured the Allah-Las’ live set circa 2012 and continued onward with 2014’s Worship the Sun, where they began to experiment with overdubs and writing songs individually instead of as a band. Now, Calico Review showcases a band that’s grown confident in its own style to reflect the perspectives of each member, to craft an album that changes up the approach from song-to-song, while retaining their abilities as a cohesive unit.
Audiences familiar with the band will recognize the levels of nuance and steadiness the Allah-Las have grown into throughout Calico Review. It’s immediate, the first thing you recognize about the band in the opening moves of “Strange Heat,” in the amount of control and character burning off of the band’s knack for restraint. Songs like “Famous Phone Figure” cradle character sketches over delicate strains of violin, organ, and Mellotron, Correia’s drumming carefully underlining a three-note theme that casts a phantom sadness over the proceedings, the group exerting a touch both light and steady enough to bring your mood to theirs.
“Could Be You” works off a steady percussive gallop, guitarist Miles Michaud waxing reflexively on second chances while the band focuses on forward motion. “Roadside Memorial” applies the Bo Diddley beat to the open road, Pedrum Siadatian stepping up on vocals, and finding new ways to match his talents to propulsive musical ends. Elsewhere, “High & Dry,” featuring drummer Matthew Correia on lead vocals, focuses on the Allah-Las most quintessential and peerless quality: writing emotionally resonant pop, at once direct and detached, casual and knowing, and instantly memorable. The dream factory itself gets called out in the fun, surf-stung number “200 South La Brea,” its carnival-like atmosphere reflecting the excitement and anxiety of those who await their judgment.
In between releases, the Allah-Las have toured around the world, and will continue that journey in support of Calico Review. The experience of traveling and idle time on tour inspired the group in different ways, and provided the pathways by which the band transports its listeners to a different place, be that wherever they are, and where the band has been.
What the Allah-Las present is not necessarily crossing the L.A. River, coin in mouth, on the Riverboat Styx. It’s not Raymond Chandler and it’s not Raymond Carver. But the band’s four members are aware of the pitfalls that stack against the idyllic notion of southern California life that forms from outside of the city. It’s a siren call to the hopeful, and it’s a successful town for tempering dreams into wakeful reality. Even with over 8,000 people per square mile, there is room for everyone, and then some, to be completely alone, by choice or otherwise.
Calico Review bears the mark of four students becoming the teachers, sharing the sentiments of the town they call home. Join them. There’s a lot to learn.