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Ranking Aloha with James Brubaker and Matt Austin

Ranking Aloha with James Brubaker and Matt Austin


Aloha played their first show in 1997 at Howard’s Club H in Bowling Green, Ohio, opening for Modest Mouse. Granted, Modest Mouse weren’t yet the big deal they were to become, but that’s a helluva way to begin public life as a band. I wasn’t at that show. I was still just a senior in high school two hours away in Dayton. But once I found my way north the following year, it didn’t take long for Aloha to become one of my favorite bands. There weren’t a ton of great bands in Bowling Green at that time, and so pretty much everyone who was the least bit interested in live music showed up at Aloha’s shows. They appealed to indie fans because of the songwriting and guitars, to music majors because of the rhythm section’s technical prowess, and even to jam band fans because they kind of liked to jam at their gigs—everyone loved Aloha. Some of us even drove, somewhat regularly, to Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo, Detroit, Cincinnati, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and I’m sure a few places I’m forgetting, to see Aloha play. Those early shows were impressive—the band fed off of each other’s energy and mixed their soaring anthems with improvisational transitions. There was a sense of excitement as each song slowly emerged out of the free-form murk. Some of my all-time favorite live music moments are from those old Aloha shows. I won’t get into them now, but ask me about them if you ever see me in person. The reason I’m bringing all of this up now, of course, is because Aloha have a new album coming out next month. Little Windows Cut Right Through (5/6) will be Aloha’s sixth proper, long player. Sprinkle in a couple of EP’s and we’ve got eight releases. Plus a 7-inch. We’ll be running a review of Little Windows Cut Right Through closer to its release, but because I’m excited about this album—it’s fantastic—I enlisted old friend Matthew Austin, who sat through many a cigarette-stink filled car rides to see Aloha play, to help me rank Aloha’s albums and write a little something about each one.

One thing to keep in mind going into this list: Aloha’s music has changed a lot over the years, but their energy has more or less stayed the same. That is, the textures, rhythms, and approach that made Aloha’s sound so distinctive in the early going have mostly been replaced, but there’s still something intangibly consistent about their very impressive body of work. If you’re a fan of Aloha’s, let us know what you think of this list. If you’ve never heard of Aloha before, maybe this list will help lead you to some great new music. Regardless, since it won’t be out yet when we publish this list, we won’t be including Aloha’s latest, but both Matt and I are pretty confident it would slot pretty high here. It’s an excellent record. So now, without further ado, let’s rank Aloha’s albums. --James Brubaker

*Note: All listed records were released by Polyvinyl Records

7 | The Great Communicators, The Interpreters, The Nonbelievers | 1999 communicators

It’s been nearly two decades since Aloha released their debut, a three-song 7-inch on Fred Thomas’s Westside Laboratories label. A year later, their initial Polyvinyl EP came out, continuing their wild and wooly mix of odd time signatures, jazz motifs, and sprawling soundscapes. Both releases are messy in the best way, the sound of young people combining disparate influences without fear. There’s a palpable sense of loss, both of youth and the encroaching responsibility of young adulthood, and the inevitable parting of friends as the hangover of college fades. –Matt Austin

6 | Sugar | 2002 sugar

A literal continuation from That’s Your Fire (listen to the fade-in), the band refined its approach towards prog-tinted indie rock, though at times the textures were more refined than the songwriting. However, when the songwriting hit, it hit hard: “Let Your Head Hang Low” remains a fan favorite, and the closing triptych of “Dissolving,” “I Wish No Chains Upon You,” and “We Get Down” perfectly evokes the endless plains of the Midwest, stretching to a horizon of permanent dusk. Eric Koltnow’s keyboards close the record in a nest of hisses, a fitting end to his last album as a member of the band. –Matt Austin

5 | Light Works | 2007 light works

I’m not exactly sure what to call Light Works—a long EP? A mini LP? A Mid-Player?—but that doesn’t really matter, does it? Upon its release, I struggled to get into Light Works. At the time, the songs didn’t quite feel like Aloha, were missing the propulsive drums, the soaring guitar hooks, the throbbing bass lines, the restless keyboards and vibraphones and whatever else I thought made Aloha, Aloha. What I’ve come to realize about this release, though, is that it is perfectly Aloha, it just isolates certain of the band’s strengths. Here, Cavallario’s songwriting and wistful vocals are front and center, and the band’s layers of sound are still present, they’re just quieter, more nuanced. These are quiet, reflective songs about getting older and trying to reconcile the ways we age with the ideals of our youth. From the upbeat pop of album opener “Body Buzz,” to the prog-folk of “Trick Spring” to the formless elegance of “Equinox,” these songs are all outliers in Aloha’s canon, but they’re exquisite outliers that remind us that Aloha isn’t just about big anthems. –James Brubaker

4 | Home Acres | 2010 home

Home Acres is Aloha’s big rock album, their hop-in-the-car-and-roll-down-the-windows album. It’s a tight album, a direct album, an efficient album—its 11 songs clock in at just 43 minutes, and almost every one of them is an anthem. The drums on “Moonless March” are frantic, and the rest of the band manages to stay a hair ahead of the beat, making the song one of the band’s most exciting moments. Even more impressive, though, is album-closer “Ruins,” built on another high energy drumbeat, which, this time is augmented by a cagey keyboard line and a structure that progresses and builds towards an irrepressible, cathartic climax. Aloha has always had a knack for killer last songs, this might be the best. –James Brubaker

3 | Here Comes Everyone | 2004 hce

One of the protagonists in James Joyce’s legendarily knotty masterpiece Finnegans Wake has the initials HCE, which (at one point at least) stands for Here Comes Everybody. Joyce was using his considerable literary muscle to evoke humanity from every angle, as this similarly-named album does with a pointillist technique of zooming in to disconnected memories. Their first full-length with new member T.J. Lipple, the band tightens the songwriting and textures to create an evocation of AM radio melodies through the lens of 70s prog. –Matt Austin

2 | Some Echoes | 2006 echoes

I love both Here Comes Everyone and Some Echoes, but I like the latter just a little bit more—it builds on the strengths of its predecessor but does everything just a little bit better. Here, Aloha mixes indie pop with prog rock and the results are stunning. Album opener “Brace Your Face” slinks through verses and choruses before arriving at a breathless, winding climax. “Your Eyes” is a tightly wound, impeccably arranged burst of pop that still stands as one of the band’s catchiest songs. “Summer Lawn” is an infectious burst of prog rock ambition, smashing Cavallario’s elegant songwriting into one of the band’s most ambitious keyboard arrangements to date, all propelled by Cale Park’s ecstatic drumming. And for all that song’s ambition, it’s slightly overshadowed by the exuberant simplicity of album-closer “Mountain,” a song that sits proudly as one of Aloha’s purest, most joyful moments. “One more layer of love is piled on,” Cavallario sings, over a driving rhythm section and throbbing synths, “we’re making a mountain.”  It’s a mission statement for Aloha, and for living, that speaks to what makes all of Aloha’s work feel so alive—it is urgent and optimistic. This is Aloha at their very best, as a utopian project: these guys are on a mission to build a better now and they’re asking us all to join them. –James Brubaker

1 | That's Your Fire | 2000 fire

To be perfectly honest, That’s Your Fire isn’t Aloha’s best album. Some Echoes is better. Here Comes Everyone is better. I haven’t lived with it for nearly as long, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say Aloha’s latest, Little Windows Cut Right Through is definitely better. So why does That Your Fire top this list? Well, partially because of nostalgia—Matt and I both heard these songs a lot in college—and partially because this album offers the purest, most explicit example of Aloha’s biggest asset—urgency. On That’s Your Fire, Aloha is hungry and the result is a frenetic set of songs that combines rich, warm guitars and vibraphones with thick bass riffs and immaculate drumming that alternates between intricate and thunderous. The album opens with the prog-y opening track “Last Night I Dreamt You Slept Beside Me,” then veers straight into the steamy “Ferocious Love” (seriously—it’s the sexiest indie rock song you’ve never heard). What follows is an assortment of anthems and slowburn  day dreams about memory and connection, all steadily building towards the breathtaking two-song climax comprised of “With the Lights Out We Sing” and “Sky High”—the first is fast, full of furious bass and guitar runs that play off of sonorous vibraphone rips, the second is a stately, elegant sustained build. “Sky High” begins with Cavallario establishing the baseline for an encounter—“When she stains your clothes, you remember/The night and walk a little slower/Towards the flow of her words”—that builds with the arrangement until his speaker is lost in the night, thirsty for more: “I know tonight I am gone/And all I want is time/And to never hear ‘Good night.’” Finally, as the song reaches its final push, he sings “Breathe in, breathe out/That’s your fire,” and the song uncoils, undoes itself, comes back down to Earth. It’s a magical moment. Aloha have made better albums than That’s Your Fire—this album is rough around the edges, for sure—but this is where it all started, where the emotions felt as earnest and raw as the music, and, even though Aloha has only improved and grown more refined with age, there was a strange alchemy working to make these songs feel bigger than their parts. Or maybe it’s just the nostalgia talking. If you want to hear an essential Aloha album, check out Some Echoes or Little Windows Cut Right Through or Here Comes Everyone. If you want to go back to the beginning, to hear how Matt Austin and I experienced Aloha in Bowling Green, Ohio (honestly, though, why would you really want to?), start with That’s Your Fire. James Brubaker


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