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Aloha : Sugar

REVIEW: Aloha: Sugar
7.22.2002 by Sean

Aloha: Sugar [Polyvinyl, 2002]

Three words? zig-zag jazz-prog rock-roll

If I were to pluck seven words from the air in an attempt to describe Aloha, I would choose the following: "Free jazz, indie rock, progressive rock band". In an astonishing, jaw-dropping, gob-stopping coincidence, that's precisely how the group characterizes itself on its own website. Sugar sprawls across its forty-five minutes - hands dangle into flower-pots, heads loll, bright red sneakers tap against shag and linoleum. The music is often dizzying - it moves without stop, jogs on the spot, spreads caterpillar beat over tubular bells, chugging guitars, slightly whinsome lyrics. Aloha is Flaming Lips meet And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. It's in-your-face prog-jazz, indie space-rock that's distracted by its own funky trousers, but keeps stamping out its 5/4 time. It's big and binary, and easy to get lost in.

And I have. Each of Aloha's tracks is like padded mallets banging away on my ears - not to say it's unpleasant, but it's insistent, insistent, a trundling of noise that keeps begging for my attention while losing me in its intricacies. Drums start, stop and re-start, lunging out of pastel shadows, while guitars fuzz, gel, and splinter. The jazz structure keeps everything ephemeral, and this is the feeling that spans the disc... the music is so confident, such a thick rainbow of sounds, that it throws the listener off their feet, that it rushes by them. No matter how many times I listen, I can't get a hold of this album, can't find something to grab onto and be moved by. Awash in a sonic sea - schizophrenic melodies sailing by, impressionist art rendered in sound. The most coherent moment on the Sugar is the fantastic album opener, "Fractures (Part One)". Warm swells of organ and synth, a growing cymbal presence, chirps... then the sway of wind-chimes. Soon, however, these chimes reveal themselves to be more than that. This is an army of bells, a xylophone militia, and once joined by their tribal commander, the group surges forward at a lightning pace, crushing sand to glass, leaping over barriers, then throwing itself from a cliff and into the Jimmy Eats World earnesty of "They See Rocks". Amidst the madcap bassline and oh-so-capable drumworks, what rises most to the fore, here, is Aloha's consistent, extraordinary use of vibraphone. It's everywhere on Sugar - thank-you, Eric Koltnow - and it's the single biggest contributor to the band's prog vibe. On the indie rock of "Balling Phase", the vibraphone dances around like the Sea & Cake, on "It Won't Be Long" it's counterpoint to the band's softened take on the Who. The instrument integrates well with the rest of the group, a flowing sidepiece to the rhythmic builds and harmonic zigzags. It just so strange to hear bubbly, ringing vibraphone atop rock'n'roll.

Sugar, though perhaps more about form than about content, is a fine piece of musical showmanship - its jazzy noodling merges happily with alt-rock tropes (from the Dave Matthews feel of "Let Your Head Hang Low" to the Ben Folds sing-song of "I Wish No Chains Upon You"), but nowhere is the vision completely coherent: it's simply too gangly, too forward-thrusting. Aloha can play, but I lack the words (or the understanding) to describe what they play, and this ambiguity is equal parts attractive and ultimately frustrating.

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