Chicago's Aluminum Group craft fluid music, songs that burble with giddy electronic rhythms and are lushly filled out by sexy brass and even string sections. Like a night taxi ride along a broad, lighted, skyscraper-lined city street, Happyness, the band's latest, feels wondrous, daring and slightly dangerous. And, as a bonus, the band has collaborated with fellow indie rockers Tortoise, the Sea and Cake, and Rebecca Gates on this, their fifth full-length album.
Multi-layered and centered on sleek sonic landscapes with richly orchestrated flourishes, the music carries transformative properties, shifting from resplendent trance-like grooves into retro-styled mod-pop; the band effortlessly balances its influences, sounding futuristic and spacey at times, and favoring '60s and '70s sounds at others. The band unabashedly displays its sappy pop affinities, and many of the songs benefit from their sunny dispositions, sounding similar to the light pop of such bands as Saint Etienne. However, the darker-inflected songs shine as well, with their dusty, arcane accents edified by the buoyant croons of singers John and Frank Nevin (they're brothers!) and the cadre of female voices that back them.
The first track, "Tiny Decision," is a tasty bite of electro-pop, opening with lowing synthesizers and an austere, mechanized beat, inviting you into the album and along for a ride with the Nevin brothers. Listen as John Nevin coolly sings, "Time fades and she forgets/ Her eyes turn from lilies to charcoal briquettes." Clearly they've got a sense of humor!
Repetitive rhythmic loops and a deliciously pulsating, dance club-ready beat gird "Two Lights." The brothers, with John singing, parlay desire into a sexy song recounting romantic, sexual conquests "I can't stop thinking about you/ As I look up at my ceiling." You empathize with the guy and can dance along to the jovial tune, too.
Brooding tracks such as the enigmatic "We're Both Hiding" serve as sophisticated ruminations on interpersonal relationships. Rather than just characterize, the song transforms into a trenchant critique of a failed romance. Haunted by spectral, luminous female vocals floating in the background, one of the brothers recalls feelings of betrayal. "Tonight, you're merely a dent on the pillow/ But I don't know where you are." The song is awash with ghostly strings and alien rhythms flickering like a fading candelabrum. He continues, "As far as I'm concerned you can work it out with somebody else." The song conveys depth in the space of a richly decorated melody, but never goes over the top; it's truly one of the album's highlights.
Moments of levity and humor more than compensate for the mainly downbeat material. "Kid" espouses a celebratory air, its chorus an all-out fiesta. "Be Killed" carries the message: "Given a choice to kill or be killed/ Be killed, be killed, be killed," its mantra (and title) repeated thrice for emphasis.
Do not mistake the album's urbane quality for sangfroid; otherwise you'll miss what is perhaps one of the year's finest. The Nevin brothers know the formula for writing savvy pop music, and if you let it, Happyness will escort you on a feckless journey of discovery. Keep your eyes peeled to the window so as not to miss anything.