The Aluminum Group is gay. I say that not because the “gay brothers,” as Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier calls Aluminum Group bandleaders Frank and John Navin, are homosexual. I say it because, like Quentin Crisp or the Pet Shop Boys, the Aluminum Group secretes all the pheromones of intellectual gayness. The Navin brothers are smart, sassy, charming, witty, literate, handsome, arty, and fashionable. The Aluminum Group is named after a Charles and Ray Eames furniture line, and the boys love their Prada wear. They present themselves as stars, even if you’ve never heard of themand, to judge from the next-to-nil attendance at the Aluminum Group’s last D.C. show, at the ill-fated Garage, not many of you have. And it’s safe to assume that Pelo, the group’s difficult fourth album, won’t change that.
The Chicago-based Navins have played in bands for nearly 20 years, beginning with the punk group Women in Love in 1982. They formed the Aluminum Group in 1989. The band’s 1995 debut, Wonder Boy (reissued in 1999 with 10 bonus tracks as Wonder Boy Plus), is a smooth marriage of classic songwriters like Lerner and Loewetheir “Loverly” is coveredand ’80s New Wave. If you think this sounds like the Magnetic Fields, you’re right. But whereas Stephin Merritt’s singing voice is like that of a gassy bullfrog, the Navins sound like Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley: deep, dreamy, and suave. And although the Navins’ lyrics aren’t as consistently memorable as Merritt’s, the brothers do have a deeply intelligent, humorous, poison-pen style that Magnetic Fields fans should appreciate.
In 1998, the Aluminum Group released Plano, an album very similar in spirit to Wonder Boy. (The two discs even share some songs, like the clever “Chocolates”: “Am I bringing you down/When I’m bringing you candy?”) The CD came out on the heels of a minitrendchamber popspearheaded by such where-are-they-nows as Tindersticks and Eric Matthews. But it didn’t break through with the indie crowd, perhaps because it’s far too professional and adult-sounding for the average slop-lovin’ twee kid. Or perhaps because the Navins’ love of saccharine-sweet ’70s pop radiothe Carpenters, Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webbis as much in evidence on the disc as New Wave.
Pedals, the Aluminum Group’s 1999 release, found the group under the spell of post-rock producer Jim O’Rourke. O’Rourke extended the Navins’ lounge-pop into the realm of such studiocentric post-rock gearheads as Tortoise (whose Doug McCombs contributed bass) and the High Llamas (whose Sean O’Hagan added banjo). But for the most part, Pedals still sounds like the Aluminum Group: lyrics out front, plenty of vocal harmonies, and jazzy acoustic-guitar chords accompanied by gentle keyboard squiggles.
Pelo is a different animal altogether. After a switch to Hefty Records, owned by John Hughes Jr. (eccentric offspring of the filmmaker), the Aluminum Group slipped into Tortoise’s Soma Studios and recorded one long smooch planted on that band’s art-rock shell. McCombs is back on bass, bandmate Jeff Parker plays guitar, and the drummers JohnMcEntire and Herndoncontribute percussion and production. Thanks to the Navins’ vocals, Pelo comes off as the smooth-operator version of Tortoise’s icy, electronic post-rock. It’s a marriage made not in heaven, but in the test tube that is Soma. There’s a distant, unemotional quality to many Tortoise-related or -produced projects, and although it has worked for bands like Stereolab and, to a lesser degree, the High Llamas, the Aluminum Group suffers.
The Aluminum Group’s last D.C. concert was remarkable for its intimacyand I’m not referring to the minuscule crowd. The Navins performed on guitar and synth, along with bassist Eddie Carlson, and the stripped-down presentation highlighted the band’s first-rate songwriting. Pelo often submerges the Aluminum Group’s strengthssharp lyrics, crisp pop songsunder Somatic sounds (Kill the vibraphone! Murder the marimba!) and Tortoisesque instrumentals (“Geraldine” and the B-side quality “Pussycat,” which begins the album) or near-instrumentals. Repeated listens reveal Pelo’s buried charms, but unlike the group’s winsome earlier works, it’s a difficult album to snuggle up to.
The album’s most profoundly Tortoise-damaged songs (“Good-Bye Goldfish, Hi Piranha” and “Sermon to the Frogs”) feature few lyrics and minimal singing and opt instead for unfocused soundscaping. Much better are the tracks that capture the Aluminum Group’s essence in an electrified setting. “Worrying Kind” is light house mixed with Prefab Sprout-ish melodies and the Navins’ Vegas-ready vocals. “Satellite” is the most like the Aluminum Group of old: Over tippy-tappy snare, sprightly cymbals, and the yearning cornet of Isotope 217 and Chicago Underground Trio mainstay Rob Mazurek, the Navins sing some of the album’s best lyrics, about an unwanted make-out session in the back seat of a car: “And a week goes by, again another/You forget the scent of mats and vinyl/And the passenger side is so unimpressed with/The steering wheel and its driver.”
“If You’ve Got a Lover, You’ve Got a Life” is sexy electro-pop. Over a percolating bass line, the Navins sing of sugar daddies in their deepest come-hither voices: “You taunt the babies out with candlelight/With four-star dinners which advertise/Bring him on back/To the back of your house/Where you saddle him up and settle down.” Like Merritt, the Navins sometimes employ female singers; either Amy Warren or the Mekons’ Sally Timms (the credits aren’t clear) sings lead on “Cannot Make You Out,” an expert balance of electronics and earthy jazz-pop, while the Navins add silky harmonies over the galloping drum-machine beat.
Even better is “Tom of Finland (An Homage),” a ribald ode to the iconic gay illustrator Touko Laaksonen. Over a lo-fi keyboard, the Navins sing in affected voices that recall the sultry hiccups of Luke Sutherland of Bows and Long Fin Killie: “Are his large square fingers fumbling accidental/On the button and the zipper on my pant?/Where he works me in the foyer like some Play-Doh/Like some roughneck holding girlie, like a clamp.”
That’s wonderfully gay. That’s the Aluminum Group. It’s too bad so much of Pelo isn’t. CP