Aloha: Light Works

[3 January 2008]

By Matthew Fiander

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

Initially conceived as an end-of-the-year thank you to fans, Aloha’s new Light Works EP finds them exploring a ground vastly different from their last effort, Some Echoes.  Both are surely heavy on mood, but Some Echoes was expansive and full while still holding onto infectious melodies and interesting vocals throughout.  Light Works isn’t short on melody, or interesting vocals, but the album relies much more on acoustic elements—mainly, the guitar—making the album sound quieter, but also colder, than its predecessor.

“Body Buzz”, the first of seven songs on the record, is also the most tuneful.  It serves as a nice bridge between the band’s previous work and this new material.  It is an inviting, if laid-bare, song, where a plain piano shoulders the load where the band’s usual atmospherics are.  Combined with the acoustic guitar, and Tony Cavallario’s reverb-soaked vocals, the song has a dream-pop feel.  But there’s enough drums and stripped-down delivery that the song retains its weight and never becomes precious or light.

From there, Aloha goes into “Broken Light”, which sounds at first like older Aloha, with the drums up front and center.  However, it slides down into the spacey wandering of the rest of Light Works.  It is clear here that the rhythm is taking backstage to Cavallario’s guitar and vocals.  But that quieter, more solitary sound works on “Broken Light”, as the plucked guitar strings have just enough hollow echo, and the holes between drum strikes give the song a nice feeling of space.  As the song pushes on, without getting louder, the elements compound and the song builds not to a climax, but instead to near climax, and Cavallario continues to repeat himself.  It becomes a piece as frustrated as it is murkily complacent.  In its way, “Broken Light” borrows heavily from Some Echoes in that it uses simple elements and combines them to make an atmosphere that the song almost can’t contain, but does.

Unfortunately, the rest of the record doesn’t hold up quiet as well.  Where the first two songs subvert the rhythm section, much of the rest of the EP leaves rhythm behind completely.  What made Aloha—and Some Echoes in particular—so successful was the impeccable drumming and bass lines that they could lay all that shimmering sound on.  Without them, and there are moments earlier in the catalog when this happens, the songs just fall apart.  So it goes here.  The last five tracks sound like early rehearsals of songs that have yet to be fleshed out.  They are not without their interesting moments, and Cavallario’s vocals are sweet as ever, but the songs just don’t hold up.

The best example comes with closer “Equinox”.  Based largely on some improvised guitar, the song is the most expansive of the bunch and, clocking in at over six minutes, the straight-up longest.  It brings to mind an older Aloha song like “Brace Your Face”, but the comparison is not a favorable one.  Instead, hearing “Equinox” makes you pine for the elements that make “Brace Your Face” work so well.  “Equinox” ambles along aimless while “Brace Your Face” establishes its territory and stalks it with confidence.  “Equinox” lacks any cohesion whereas “Brace Your Face”—which is actually a longer song—has a structure that is as clear-cut as it is interesting in its construction.  And, finally, “Brace Your Face” is a great rock song.  And while “Equinox” doesn’t aspire to any sort of rock, it is almost difficult to identify it as a song.  The experimentation behind it might have merit, but the execution does not.

And that might be the best thing to say about the whole album.  After a strong start, its experiments weigh it down.  The problem with the new direction on Light Works is that it doesn’t seem like the band fully committed.  Instead of pushing some interesting new elements, they fell back on their new reliance on the acoustic guitar, which couldn’t be less inventive.  For better or worse Aloha is half-reaching for a new sound, and they halfway get there.

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