[30 January 2003]
It’s hard to get excited about a band like the Aluminum Group. Their lush little bliss-pop ditties are so breezy, so innocuous, so squeaky-clean, that they resemble something you’d hear in a dentist’s waiting room, a fact even their own press kit riffs on. “It won’t be long until THE ALUMINUM GROUP’s catchy, smart lyrics and simple pop constructions join the roster in an elevator near you,” crow the folks at Wishing Tree Records, in what you have to hope is just an attempt to mimic the so-unironic-it’s-ironic songwriting of Aluminum founders Frank and John Navin.
But don’t let the candy-coated gloss of the group’s fifth album, Happyness, fool you. These are indeed smart, sharp little tunes, packed with offbeat lyrics and musical echoes of sophisti-pop forebears from Roxy Music to Spandau Ballet. At their best, the Navin brothers evoke the pop-crooner elegance of these acts while forging their own style with subtle hints of modern electronica and lyrics that sneak up on your with their scathing wit. At their worst, they’re too clever by half, setting willfully mannered imagery to equally mannered melodies and arrangements. Either way, though, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone else right now investing this kind of slick chamber pop with so much verve and intelligence.
The album’s opening track, “Tiny Decision”, mixes the good with the bad, getting off on the wrong foot with an awkwardly syncopated bass pulse and awkward lyrics like, “The world and the delicate pair/Pull the wool over the great surveyor”, before finally settling into a nicely jazzy tale of Adam and Eve getting booted out of paradise for their “tiny decision”. One suspects that the Navin brothers are trying to establish an overarching theme with this odd opening tune; after all, the album is called Happyness (why it’s misspelled, I couldn’t tell you), and it’s allegedly going to be followed by records called More Happyness and Three Happyness. Are all the songs that follow “Tiny Decision” about the unending human quest to regain the happiness we lost after The Fall? Possibly; Aluminum Group certainly strikes me as being capable of such pretension. Fortunately, however, the songs on Happyness are mainly just catchy, quirky pop tunes with some nicely oblique lyrics about love, friendship and heartache, all soothingly crooned by both brothers with a gentleness that belies the brutal truth-telling of their best moments.
The second and third songs are probably the album’s best: “I Blow You Kisses” brings to mind Steely Dan’s “King of the World” with a jittery sound that somehow manages to be breezy and urgent at the same time, while “Pop” is the album’s elevator hit, an irresistible jazz-pop confection with smart, funny lyrics about losing friends (“Pop goes another friend/Because you’re too stoned to listen”) and great guest vocals by ex-Spinanes frontwoman Rebecca Gates, one of many members of Chicago’s experimental indie rock scene who contributed to the album. The muted cornet of Isotope 217’s Rob Mazurek is nicely featured on both tracks, as well, lending them a Bacharach-like panache.
On “Two Lights”, the Navin brothers recall Spandau Ballet’s Kemp brothers; it’s a yearning love song that finds Aluminum Group coming as close as they ever do to rocking out, with new wave guitars chiming and basses throbbing. “We’re Both Hiding” is the album’s epic, a melancholy breakup ballad that clocks in at over six minutes, an eternity by the Navins’ usually succinct standards. It never flags, though, thanks to a quietly insistent beat and a smart arrangement that tosses strings, synths, horns, tinkling acoustic guitars and achingly sweet harmonies into a tangy chamber pop salad.
After the melodic bounce of “Kid”, the album gets a little lost in the wilderness of the Navins’ lyrical and melodic eccentricities. “Oxygen” bogs down in some of the album’s most convoluted lyrics (“You were weaned on popsicles and eucharist/and there’s a spacecraft full of dog orbiting both of us”) and a tricky melody that never seems to quite resolve itself, while “Speed Dial” and “Be Killed” both ultimately sound like throwaway tracks, the former offering little more than the Bryan Ferry detachment of its breezy cynicism (“This bar is a joke/Did someone get its number?”), while the latter buries its lovelorn lyrics (“Love can send you crumbling to the ground/So you have to let it go”) in a sleepy wash of Beatlesque acoustic guitars and faux Latin percussion.
The Navins bounce back with an eerie closing cut called “Stroke”, which roughs up their trademark polish a little with some fractured electric guitars and spiky synth effects over a quirky drum pattern that occasionally hiccups into stuttering breakbeats. It also has brilliantly skewed, darkly humorous lyrics that are among the album’s best: “Hand me a cigarette, Jim”, sings the apparently dying narrator, “and ask the paramedic if she will be my wife”. Here again, in aesthetics if not quite in style, Frank and John Navin seem like kindred spirits to Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, couching dark, surreal images and harsh wit in pleasant, artfully arranged music that seems specifically crafted to soften the blow. It’s like getting a knife in the ribs during a massage therapy session.
Like I said, it’s hard to get excited about the Aluminum Group, but I can still easily recommend Happyness, with the appropriate amount of ironically cool detachment, to fans of lushly orchestrated pop and post-modern crooners like Eric Matthews and Belle & Sebastian. While it probably won’t make the Navins’ core fans forget their outstanding 1999 release Pedals, it continues to further develop their unique sound, and has enough moments of pure pop bliss, like, well, “Pop”, to make it a worthy addition to the Aluminum Group’s growing catalog of intelligent ear candy.