“I relish a masochistic level of challenge,” laughs Carlos Hernandez, one of three singers in Brooklyn-based quintet Ava Luna. Hence his intense level of prep as his band prepares to cover — and illuminate — Histoire de Melody Nelson, a revered and controversial 1971 Serge Gainsbourg concept album about the singer’s fictional seduction of an underage girl. The task at hand comes courtesy of the Northside Festival, which invited Ava Luna, along with Frankie Cosmos and Deradoorian, to cover songs from a musically significant album of their choice.
If the concept sounds a lot like the 33 1/3 series, in which writers opine for 250 or so pages on a musically significant album of their choice, that’s because the showcase is a partnership with Bloomsbury, who publishes the books. All three of the albums whose songs are being covered are also 33 1/3 entries; Frankie Cosmos picked Liz Phair’s 1993 masterwork, Exile in Guyville, and Deradoorian went with Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality. In all three cases, the performer wasn’t born yet when the record they’re playing from came out.
Hernandez says he felt a “weird gravitational pull” to Ava Luna’s choice. He first heard Histoire de Melody Nelson in college, and in preparation for the performance, he’s reading the 33 1/3 book, by Darran Anderson, so he can place the show and Gainsbourg’s record in context “Part of the spirit of the book series in a way is to see where these records fit in history,” he says. “This record was clearly made by someone who was not a part of any social or cultural trends that begat rock ‘n’ roll. It sounds like an alien made it.” Hernandez thinks this quality is the result of Gainsbourg’s collaboration with the composer Jean-Claude Vannier.
Covering this album comes with a greater responsibility than many other albums Ava Luna could have picked. “We want to do justice to the music while being very critical and very careful and engaging the audience in understanding the [story],” says Hernandez. “[Ava Luna] absolutely does not condone the content. I’m grateful that as a culture we’re well beyond the age when a tortured male artist can write, weaponize, and objectify this fictional defenseless creature for his own ends.” Just in case the point doesn’t come across during the set, Hernandez also wrote a 3,000-word essay response to the album and the 33 1/3 book, which he’ll hand out in ‘zine format at the gig.
Heavy in a different way are the eight songs on Master of Reality. Like many now-fans who didn’t hear the record when it was released, Angel Deradoorian became “peripherally” aware of the songs before finally sitting down to listen in full. “Later on in my musical life [I heard] them and really got into them,” she says via email while on tour in Europe. “Master of Reality is really deep, philosophically and musically. The whole album embodies an aspect of what I’m going through in my personal life, so it felt good to somewhat bask in those ideas.”
Once she started practicing for the show, she discovered she has much in common with Sabbath. “My vocal range is very similar to Ozzy’s, so I can sing everything in the same key.” And as a bassist, she wasn’t initially influenced by Sabbath’s Geezer Butler, but, she notes, “listening to this album in depth to learn the parts has made me really love his style, and oddly, we have similar taste. He’s very loose and groovy, but knows when to lay back. A mindful player.”
Likewise, Greta Kline, of Frankie Cosmos, had a kinship with the Liz Phair record — her mom is a fan. “But I hadn’t heard all of Exile in Guyville until a couple years ago,” says Kline. “When I first listened to the whole thing I listened through three times in a day. It just hit me really hard.”
She admits to some trepidation that she’ll “butcher these amazing songs,” and notes they won’t do the entire 60-minute-plus album, but you can bet she’ll include her favorite cut, “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Excited as she is, it’s still a little daunting. “This is probably the most difficult musical project I’ve taken on outside of my own music. I started freaking out when I first tried to figure out these songs — they’re really hard. I hope our performance is fun and doesn’t offend her in any way!”
While this is likely a one-time-only endeavor for all involved, Hernandez, like Kline and Deradoorian, says he enjoyed it. “I always imagined being in a band would involve this kind of exercise. This is good for us, and it’s good to look at your influences and really think about it,” he concludes. “That might be more of a journalist’s job, but I think any responsible musician would do the same.”
The 33 1/3 Northside showcase happens Saturday, 6/11, at Rough Trade.