In the hype-driven world of indie music, slow and steady rarely wins the race. Sometimes, though, it manages quietly to impress. This was readily apparent when Aloha played New York City several weeks ago, opening for blog-buzz band Voxtrot at the Mercury Lounge. The crowd, as you'd expect, was a wee bit jaded and had high expectations for the headliners, who had been hailed as the Second Coming by a variety of Web sites. In the end, though, opening act Aloha quietly blew the young Voxtrot upstarts off the stage. While Voxtrot members tried to banter with the audience while managing to work their instruments correctly only about half the time, Aloha came on to little fanfare, sat down and proceeded to jam out a solid, polished set that effortlessly mixed sunny indie-pop with some slightly wanky prog influences. Perhaps more important, the band members came across as calm, assured elder statesmen.
Aloha got together in 1997, when vocalist and guitarist Tony Cavallario and bassist Matthew Gengler started playing music together in Bowling Green, Ohio. The two were signed to Polyvinyl Records on the strength of a demo tape. Sticking with Polyvinyl, Aloha has released one EP, a handful of seven-inches, and four full-length albums.
It wasn't until they released their third record, Here Comes Everyone, in 2004 that the band began to garner significant attention. Here Comes Everyone managed an indie-rock coup by getting a positive review in the ultra-snarky Pitchfork (pitchforkmedia.com), as well making critics' Top 10 lists on Stereogum.com and CNN. The record sounded like a mix of old-school Genesis, Brian Wilson, and newer post-rock influences like Tortoise. It also incorporated several unusual instruments, including marimba, homemade mellotrons, organs and tape manipulations. It was their use of a vibraphone though, that became a major identification point, with several reviews and articles referring to them as "the band with the vibraphone."
It's no wonder, then, that when asked how the new record, Some Echoes, differs from Here Comes Everybody, keyboardist T.J. Lipple quickly replies, "There is only one note of vibraphone on the entire album." Feeling the need to continue their growth as a band, Aloha moved away from quirky experimentation and towards a more structured approach. "On the last record, we went in blind and let the arrangements dictate how the songs sounded," says Lipple. "On Some Echoes, we had a plan and we made sure we were solid on the basics."
Some Echoes is a more solid, polished record than its predecessor, but it retains the joy and curiosity of Here Comes Everybody. The opener, "Brace Your Face," recalls Yes, both in its complicated instrumentation and odd lyrics. "Weekend" is a Touch and Go Records post-rocker that almost veers into jam territory, but the Aloha crew catch themselves before they start smelling like Phish. Vocals come to the forefront on "If I Lie Down," and the record goes out on a high note with "Mountain," which, true to its name, climbs slowly, peaks beautifully and then fades out easily.
While all of this makes for fantastic music, it doesn't exactly add up to commercial success and piles of money. "Five out of seven clubs we play are filthy," says Lipple. "We're in a van on a two-and-a-half-month tour right now. We're lucky if the clubs we play have working bathrooms and we get bottled water. We also travel without a sound guy, and while we don't have a vibraphone on the road, we do have a marimba, and some sound people have no idea what to do with that."
Despite all this, when asked what an ideal future would look like, Lipple says, "Honestly, we'd just like to keep touring and recording. We don't feel the need to have Web sites singing our praises. That type of hype is suicide for a band that cares about music. At least we have a history, but it's the kiss of death for a brand-new band to get huge so quickly."
Perhaps Aloha will never be hailed on the cover of New Music Express as "the greatest band since last week"; maybe they'll never clap their hands and say yeah to out-of-control hype and giant, packed venues. That's fine with them. They seem to be content swinging from town to town, playing for enthusiastic crowds, and having creative control over their sounds. The most they seem to want is that all their hard work will pay off with access to working toilets.
Aloha at Empyrean with Smile Line Spark and Teevee on Friday, May 5, at 7 pm. Tickets: $7, at the door. Call 456-5127.