Described so astutely by an All Music Guide reviewer as “that one band with the vibraphone”, Cleveland-based four-piece Aloha has gone through some interesting changes in their almost five years of playing together. Debuting with a jazzy, post-rock take on things on their early recordings, such as 1998’s The Great Communicators, The Interpreters, The Nonbelievers, the band has stumbled across a very intriguing blend of post-rock meandering and tight, pop-informed song structures on Sugar, their latest effort.
The most standout feature of Aloha’s sound is, yes, that vibraphone, played with intensity and conviction by Eric Koltnow. On first impression, many of the songs on Sugar sound like fairly standard indie rock songs with busy vibraphone parts stuck haphazardly on top of everything else. However, further listens serve to integrate what at first may seem quite disparate, and eventually, Aloha’s sound congeals into a convincing whole.
Sugar begins with a brief instrumental titled “Fractures (Part One)” which reminds one of Athens, Georgia-by-way-of-Indonesia experimentalists Macha. After this brief, rather dissonant, exotic sounding intro, Aloha settles down into a much more predictable, but no less enjoyable groove. The band’s songs are built around singer/guitarist Tony Cavallario’s simple, repetitive guitar parts and passionate, keening vocals. On top of this sturdy foundation, bassist Matthew Gengler lays his nimble-fingered runs, and Koltnow drapes his luxuriant vibraphone playing. Drummer Cale Parks keeps it all together in an extremely solid fashion, proving himself to be an extraordinarily sensitive, dynamic player.
Although Koltnow’s vibraphone certainly lends a twinge of exotica to the proceedings, it would amount to little if it weren’t for the strength of Cavallario’s songwriting and the tightness and versatility of the rhythm section of Gengler and Parks. Songs like “Let Your Head Hang Low” and “Balling Phase” are instantly appealing, with Cavallario’s distinctive, slightly reedy voice leading the way. While his lyrics are often subsumed in the general din of the band, they are actually quite worth paying attention to. In “Let Your Head Hang Low”, he poetically details an individual’s insignificance in the face of the world: “Let your head hang low / If you’ve drawn yourself a breath / You know the wind can wrest the world out of your hold”. The vocal melody of “Balling Phase” oddly resembles vintage XTC, and resolves itself into one of the more upbeat, catchy songs on the record.
There are a few songs, such as “It Won’t Be Long” and “Protest Song”, that lack the distinctive vocal melodies that Cavallario brings to the best songs on the record, and thus fail to make a lasting impression. While nothing here is less than pleasant, it’s clear that without Cavallario’s songs front and center, the group loses a lot of focus. In a similar fashion, even on the record’s strongest songs, the band sometimes succumbs to the tendency to get carried awayt, tacking on extra changes and long instrumental codas that don’t really feel like they need to be there.
However, when they’re on, which they are for a good percentage of Sugar, Aloha make an intriguing, sinuous, unique noise that is well worth looking into.