The Chicago pop band, Aluminum Group is changing directions again -- which is OK. After all, when you've reached the top of the heap, you're entitled to take a stroll. But in these situations it's wise to beware lofty heights. . . there's a long way to fall. Lucky then that the Aluminum Group has never been more surefooted. Pelo, the third installment in the group's unofficial "P" trilogy, differs from its predecessors, Plano and Pedals, but it doesn't differ in quality. All three records are smart and well crafted to the extreme. Pop that doesn't rely on kitsch or clichés to get its point across.
The music on Pelo is varied almost beyond description. "Goodbye Goldfish, Hi Piranha" is diva balladhood made beautiful by its simplicity. "Pussycat" is wordless but expressive nonetheless. All over the record, stark synthesizers appear and disappear; fake drums meld into real drums into fake drums played by a real drummer. Simple guitar lines become less simple as the rest of the instruments kick in. Barely whispered vocals on "Cannot Make You Out" give way to far-flung diatribes on "Worrying Kind." Pelo has one of everything, so long as it's slow, spare, spacey or electro-pop. What it doesn't have is traditional pop in the vain of "Chocolates" or "The Mattachine Society" from Plano. Ear candy would be nice, but hey, you can't stop progress. If you loved the Aluminum Group only for their poppier moments, then Pelo is not the album for you.
As with most good-looking children, Pelo resembles the best features of its lineage. Like 1998's Plano, it has glossy production, but the lush Herb Alpert-meets-Stephin Merrit setting of the earlier record has been buffed to a hermetically beautiful austerity on the new one. And unlike Plano, which is old-fashioned pop of the highest order, Pelo is a bit strange. Like 1999's Pedals, Pelo takes an unconventional view of what makes a pop song catchy, but Pelo goes minimalist where Pedals went bizarrely and sometimes brilliantly prog-maximalist.
Unrelenting stylistic variety between albums has been a hallmark of the Aluminum Group. Their decision to collaborate with a different producer on each album is a big reason for it. On Plano and Pedals the band worked with well-known Chicago producer/engineers, Dave Trumfio and Jim O'Rourke, respectively. On Pelo they've tried a hybrid approach instead. To keep costs down they recorded only the basic tracks at a full studio then moved to John McIntyre's smaller space for the time-intensive mixing. It seems to have worked just fine. The finished product is as accomplished as its predecessors.
Accomplished? Well-crafted? If Pelo sounds boring, it's not. It is soothing -- though not in a Yanni way. And unlike other, similar music, it stands up to close scrutiny and repeat listening. Pelo can be used as background music and it can be appreciated as high-concept progressive rock. Just don't make the mistake of dismissing it as either one.