Chicago lounge-pop vets John and Frank Navin deliver plenty of cool, but not enough feeling, on their sixth album.
Sometimes a single detail tells you most everything you need to know about an album. For example, the Aluminum Group's sixth album, Little Happyness, was co-produced by Fabio Zambernardi, who is design director for Prada. In all fairness, Zambernardi is close friends with one of the Navin brothers, who are the core of the Aluminum Group. The Navins performed at Zambernardi's private birthday bash several years ago. Most likely, the designer's contribution to Little Happyness was more monetary than creative. Still, the co-producer credit fits remarkably well. If you didn't know the backstory, you might think it more than a little pretentious. And John and Frank Navin probably wouldn't mind at all.
Since entering the Chicago scene over a decade ago, the Aluminum Group has always been about fashion. The music, a melodic blend of jazz-influenced easy listening and intelligent synth-pop, is exquisitely-tailored and cleanly-pressed. It's effortlessly fashionable music for fashionable people. Yet, from 1995's gorgeous "Chocolates" on, there's always been a vulnerable, emotionally genuine center to the Navins' songwriting. The Aluminum Group has often been compared to the Magnetic Fields. On a musical level, it makes sense, but Pet Shop Boys have always seemed a more fitting antecedent. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were criticized as calculating aesthetes, but you didn’t have to look very hard to see crushed flowers and blood all over those designer clothes. So it's been with the Navins.
But something's missing on most of Little Happyness, the concluding chapter of a loose "Happyness Trilogy" that also includes 2002's Happyness and 2003's More Happyness. It's that warmth and vulnerability that's been at the forefront of their best work. Without it, the majority of the album feels like a relatively hollow, albeit immaculately-constructed, exercise. That's not to say that the Navins are snobby fashionistas. They're sophisticated but squarely down-to-earth Midwesterners. But Little Happyness comes on too cool, emanating from the heights of the hippest bachelor-pad in the city, eager to impress your friends. And it is impressive, but more for how perfectly, often smugly, the Navins utter each syllable in their smooth baritones, or how no single sound or instrument oversteps its boundaries.
A few of the songs themselves do leave an impression for the right reasons. "Milligram of Happiness" is the kind of smart, sweet, jazzy, big-hearted pop that got the Navins noticed in the first place. Just try and prevent it from improving your mood. It's followed by the giddy up-and-down melody of "Post It", both tracks benefiting from sunny female backing vocals. A song about a Post-It note with an all-important phone number might not be exactly groundbreaking these days, but it's the kind of detail-oriented conceit the Navins get the most out of.
Quickly, though, Little Happyness takes a turn toward the decidedly less-happy. The chugging, purposeful new-wave of "Beautiful Eyes" is in marked contrast to the previous optimism, although Frank Navin's sharply sardonic lyrics make it worthwhile. "Tonight I'll be your idiot / And you will be my flash card", he sings, before adding, "Don't go home / I haven't spent all your money yet". Again, it's not a new message, especially if you're familiar with Pet Shop Boys. But it works, and there's no redeeming sense of sarcasm. When Navin says, "People like me don't hang around in search of affection", you're inclined to take him at his word.
The mercenary message of "Beautiful Eyes" seems like cruel foreshadowing when you consider that most of the eight songs that follow are disappointing. "Headphones" takes a rather trite look at someone whose entire world is contained in their iPod, while on "Checking Out" a female guest vocalist cuts a vapid socialite down to size. Lyrics and music both are on Aluminum Group autopilot, more than can be said for the melody-free disco of "Paper Crowns" or the empty name-dropping of "Note to Self". The Navins' intertwining vocals and wistful charm of "The World Doesn't Spin On Us" come too late.
Doing Little Happyness few favors is the squeaky-clean, low-key production of Tortoise member John McEntire. McEntire's drumming is exquisite, and he certainly makes sure there's room in the mix for each voice and instrument. But he would probably make Slayer sound calm, quiet, and unaffected if given the chance. With the songwriting largely not up to snuff, Little Happyness needs an infusion of dynamics, and McEntire only adds to the ultracool detachment.
Unfortunately, Little Happyness is a pretty accurate description of the album's effect on the listener. It's a case of too much Prada, not enough pleasure.