Songs for Summer and that Synthesizer Fizz: James Brubaker and Jillian Maruskin on “Discovering” Aloha and Little Windows Cut Right Through
James Brubaker: I first encountered Aloha during my freshman year at Bowling Green State University. That first year of school I was a bummer, sad out of my mind and listening to nothing but the mopey, guitar driven indie-emo-whatever of the day. Shit like Clarity, In Place of Real Insight, Nothing Feels Good, Look Now Look Again, The Lonesome Crowded West—you know what I’m talking about. I think it was Cale Parks who got me out of the dorms and to my first Aloha show. He lived on the floor above me and had only recently started drumming for the band. That first time I saw Aloha, I was mindblown. They kind of sounded like the sadsack indie pop I was into, but they sounded like something else, too—there were hints of jazz in the mix, and layers of resonant sound washing over the raw, propulsive pop songs at the center of their music.
That was seventeen years ago. I’ve changed. Aloha has changed. We’ve both been through some shit. But that first time seeing Aloha still resonates because, six albums, a smattering of EP’s and almost twenty years into their career, the things that made Aloha exciting then are the same things that make Aloha exciting now.
My collaborator on this review was also around for some of those early Aloha shows. Her name is Jillian Maruskin. She started at Bowling Green the same year as me. I think we met in a freshman composition course taught by Brent Royster.
I thought it would be fun to bring in a guest writer who was also in on the ground floor, so to speak. I wanted to do this because whenever I try to pinpoint what it is, exactly, that has made Aloha so great for all these years, I always return to the idea of urgency. I like that idea, and I think it’s accurate. But I thought it would be interesting to see what it might all look like to someone else who could look back to the same time and place, but through different eyes and ears.
So, Jillian, What do you think of Little Windows Cut Right Through?
Jillian Maruskin: I barely remember that we met in freshman English. What I do remember is your penchant for baby blue and the trip we took to Ann Arbor. And thank you for introducing me to Braid and The Promise ring.
But I digress.
Aloha came into my life because Cale was very good friends with my sophomore year roommate’s boyfriend. I remember Cale using the catchphrase “CP is PC.” I remember studying at Cosmo’s Coffee. I remember all of us being so excited when the new Afghan Whigs album came out (1965). I knew Matthew, too, and I remember his quiet intensity.
When it comes to Aloha, we are on the exact same page regarding their urgency. Before I even looked at your teaser review of “Signal Drift” I had written a note about the urgency of the drums in “Faraway Eyes,” but this certainly applies to everything Aloha does. And I have to say, this album is a perfect wedded bliss of keyboards and drums. Their syncopation and conversation infuse the album with this varied-tempo...pulsing (for lack of a better word).
I feel compelled to touch on “Signal Drift” because I really can’t think of a better way to start an album that you want the listener to experience. The intro is like a headfirst dive into an underwater dream world. But as soon as the drums start I feel like I’m on skates at a psychedelically-lit roller disco. A smart move by the band because if you’re not familiar with Aloha’s body of work there is no doubt you can be drawn into the rest of the album by this first track. There’s a dreamy repetitiveness here that I look forward to enjoying in high summer—and the end is delightfully poppy, to boot.
Brubaker: That “perfect wedded bliss of keyboards and drums” is a big part of what makes Little Windows Cut Right Through such an exciting album. The album feels both familiar and fresh. Keyboards aren’t new to Aloha—as early as their first EP for Polyvinyl, the band was layering the synthesized fizz onto their songs, and when T.J. Lippple joined up prior to 2003’s Here Comes Everyone, the synths and keyboards started moving to the forefront. Prior to Little Windows, I’d say that Aloha’s best “keyboard” album was 2006’s Some Echoes, which blended synthpop with Yes-inspired prog rock to impressive ends. But I think I like what Aloha is doing on Little Windows even more. Here, the keyboards seem more textural , get more tangled up with each song’s throbbing pulse. That’s why your phrase, “perfect wedded bliss of keyboards and drums” seems so apt, here. Whether it’s the subtle pulse on “Faraway Eyes” that eventually erupts into a luxe flourish of synth arpeggios, the heavy fizz underlying “Marigold” or the bold 80’s synths that drive “One Hundred Million” and “I Heard You Laughing,” all of it feels alive with 80’s retro-futurism.
But I don’t want to overstate the influence the 80’s. Maybe for points of comparison we can think about what Justin Vernon was doing with “Beth/Rest” on that last Bon Iver record? What about the last couple of M83 albums? Aloha’s latest includes some similar textures, but doesn’t feel like those. Little Windows doesn’t feel like Aloha is chasing trends or the sound of a decade. No, it feels like Aloha, and it feels fresh. So what is this album doing, exactly?
Maruskin: Whether it was intentional or not, I think what this album is doing is ushering us all into summer. I understand a lot goes into the writing, recording, and mixing of an album, so perhaps they’re just taking the release date whenever they can get it, but the fact that it has a May release date, to me, seems perfect. I mean, can’t you see yourself on a blanket in the sun, with your skin warm, and a cold beer listening to Little Windows on repeat? Or driving with the windows open on a cloudless, July day? I almost referred to the album as dance-able (“Faraway Eyes,” and “Signal Drift,” in particular). I swear I was this close to classifying it as dance music, but maybe what I should say is “sit out in the sun-able.” I don’t know about you, but I always have an album that goes on repeat every summer. A few years back it was Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. I couldn’t get enough. I had it on during runs, while mowing the lawn, at the pool...everywhere. I can see Little Windows as an undercurrent to the summer of 2016 for sure. It’s an electrified, yet emotional album. Aloha seems to have found a balance between being earnest and taking oneself too seriously.
Brubaker: Yes! Yes! YesYesYes! I’ve always been a firm believer in albums being perfect for specific seasons (And yes, Random Access Memories was one of a few albums that dominated summer 2013, for me, along with Modern Vampires of the City and Yeezus). It’s why so many R.E.M. albums were released in the fall. It’s why American Football’s LP was released in the fall. And I can’t help but think it’s why all but two of Aloha’s albums were released in the spring or summer—Aloha make music for warm weather. Little Windows isn’t quite like Aloha’s older albums, but it still feels perfect for summer. These songs aren’t as big or bombastic as some of Aloha’s previous windows-down anthems. These songs are a little quieter, a little more reserved than a lot of what has made Aloha tick in the past, but there is a quiet desire in them, a desire to escape, a desire to transform.
In “Ocean Street,” Cavallario sings, “I want to feel like I’m barreling south/Shedding my skin crossing state lines,” then “I want to leave like a bear from a cave/Though you don’t look so big with your cold hands.” On “Signal Drift,” he sings, “Run to your window I’ll set my sights on it with laser beam focus.” On “One Hundred Million” he sings “I want to treat you like a stranger/Make you a guest in your own home.” On “Don’t Wanna Win,” he sings, “And when the day turns into night/I want to be in that number/and when you start all over/I want to be inside,” then, “And when you start all over/I want to be on that plane.” I can’t help but think that these lyrics have something to do with the album feeling so right for the season—these lyrics are all about transition, transgressing boundaries, about starting over. And maybe that makes perfect sense because with Little Windows, Aloha is emerging from their longest period of inactivity since they formed. Maybe this album feels so light, so perfect for the season because, at the risk of sounding hokey, it feels like a new spring for Aloha.
And to be clear, Little Windows Cut Right Through isn’t just right for warm weather, it’s an excellent Aloha album all the way around. When Matt Austin and I ranked our favorite Aloha albums for The Collapsar, we talked about where this new one might fit. At the time, though the album was still very fresh for us, we talked about how it would probably land in the top three. Now that I’ve been living with this album for a little over a month, I’d say it’s definitely my favorite Aloha album, both for its elegant production and mature, urgent songwriting. Everything I’ve ever loved about Aloha is on full display, here, but everything feels tighter and more carefully considered without sacrificing any of the passion that has helped defined Aloha’s music for the better part of twenty years. Little Windows Cut Right Through should be a rewarding album for longtime fans, but should also be an excellent entry point for new fans.
Jillian Maruskin is a librarian at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. She blogs about library work at ontheflybrarian.wordpress.com. Her work has appeared in Assisi: An Online Journal of Arts & Letters. She lives in Columbus, Ohio.
James Brubaker is the Associate Editor of The Collapsar. He is the author of Liner Notes (Subito Press) and Pilot Season(Sunnyoutside Press). His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Zoetrope: All Story, The Normal School, Heavy Feather Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Collagist, and Beloit Fiction Journal among others. He grew up in Dayton, Ohio and currently teaches creative writing at Southeast Missouri State University. Find him at jamesbrubaker.net.