The California sun really does something to your brain. The nearly half-century-old history of musicians in Laurel Canyon mixing folk, rock and psych has a deep resonance in today’s West Coast singers, and Sacramento-based four-piece Sister Crayon are next in that long line of California succession. The band takes cues from all sorts of California folkies, from 1970s singer Judee Sill to contemporary atmospheric moaners CocoRosie, a band that never managed to rise above their critics to become, when they showed the most promise, a dreamier Grizzly Bear. What Sister Crayon aim to create is a sort of West Coast response to Beach House, a music as mired in soft atmospheric ambiance as it is in emotional yearning.
Though they’re called Sister Crayon, I keep thinking it should be Sister Canyon; something about the wide expanses and deep chasms of the Western states breeds unearthly, psychedelic moaning like this, reminiscent of desert campfires and psilocybin mushrooms. The band is really built around singer Terra Lopez, whose voice has an unearthly ghostly quality, not unlike the aforementioned CocoRosie sisters or their collaborator Matteah Baim. She’s backed by a fair amount of moody synths, loops and drummer Nicholas Suhr’s backbone beats.
But still, this is Lopez’s band, and your opinion of Bellow will depend heavily on whether or not you care for her swirling, reverb-heavy chants and prayers. At times, her smoky murmur turns into an operatic wail, turning other-wordly on “Every Third Hour.” But also, when there’s not enough instrumental drama to justify her emotion, it sounds out of place, as on “Stem.” Because her voice is so powerful, it never quite sounds intimate on its own, just lost. She’s much better when things turn tender, as they do on the moaning piano ballad “Ixchel, the Lady Rainbow,” though its nearly eight minutes slightly outlast their welcome. Or on “(In) Reverse,” when a chorus of strings crescendo with her, creating a disorienting wail that matches the song’s claim that “It’s so easy to get distracted.” When she gets carried away, though, and forgets that distractions are not the same as over-stimulation, the music goes downhill.
There’s a lot of talent on Bellow, and behind Terra Lopez’s strong voice is a wealth of instrumentation. When those two elements work in concert, the music is beautiful. But when they don’t, the result is more animal growl than natural moan. Sister Crayon is still young, and the poppy, rollicking sing-along of standout “Souls of Gold” shows that they have the sensibilities to write a catchy lick to last through long desert drives as well as the ethereal chants for the campfire when you get there. They can bellow with the best of their canyon forebears.