Music critics love to throw around the term “criminally underrated” to describe personal favorite bands, but in the case of Aloha, that’s the only way to put it. After six quiet years, the foursome, returns today with its seventh LP, Little Windows Cut Right Through.
Aloha’s founding members—Tony Cavallario on vocals and guitar, Matt Gengler on bass and Cale Parks on drums (multi-instrumentalist T.J Lipple joined later)—arrived on the periphery of the late-‘90s emo movement centered in the Midwest. Although seemingly primed for a mainstream crossover, the band never quite found it. While Aloha recorded for one of that scene’s flagship labels, Polyvinyl—and still do—the group was always after something different. Songs take cues from ‘70s progressive rock and contemporary Chicago post-rock (Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, Gastr del Sol), while also occasionally throwing a vibraphone into a traditional guitar-bass-drums configuration. Additionally, the band distinguishes itself with a keen sense for melodic hooks delivered emphatically by Cavallario.
For those who haven’t followed Aloha’s nearly two-decade journey, Little Windows is a pop-rock triumph that probably seems out of left field. But over the course of its career, the group has evolved from precocious post-rockers with an aptitude for melody and a flair for experimentation, to the masters of their craft they are today. Below, we rank Aloha’s seven albums (and lone EP) in order of ascending greatness.
Like most demos and EPs made in bands’ gestation periods, the improv-heavy Great Communicators is the sound of a young group finding its footing. Even with the execution still taking shape, the ideas—fully realized on 2000’s That’s Your Fire_—are definitely there.
A stripped-down outing with only seven songs, Light Works, owes more to atmospheric ‘80s U.K. rockers Talk Talk than any of the ‘90s Chicago guys. Cavallario’s dulcet lilt is the definite focal point on this short album, but the emphasis on negative space (even as acoustic and electric guitars mix), makes it worth hearing. Still, it’s best enjoyed and understood in the context of Aloha’s catalog as a whole.
Home Acres, the band’s sixth LP, can be hit-or-miss (not unlike like 2006’s Some Echoes). However, the exhilarating “Moonless March” is one of Aloha’s finest tunes, with its gale-force intensity not heard since Here Comes in 2004. In particular, this song is a great gateway for new converts.
Aloha’s ‘70s-styled fourth album Some Echoes found the band infusing the AM Gold sounds established on Here Comes with tightly-wound progressive rock arrangements à la Yes. Nothing here quite matches the kinetic energy of an “All the Wars” or “Hundred Stories,” but the single “Your Eyes” is a crush-mixtape essential.
On Little Windows, Aloha morphs again—as six years between albums will do—smoothing any remaining rough edges from the Fire era for its cleanest, strongest set of songs since committing to its pop aspirations with Here Comes. Aloha records always have great openers and “Signal Drift,” with its pulsating beat, swooning synths and Cavallario’s searching vocal, is no exception. That energy never flickers or fades during Little Windows’ 43 minutes. Songs like the wistful, nostalgic “Ocean Street” and Peter Gabriel-esque “One Hundred Million” make it hard not to wonder why Death Cab for Cutie—who also formed in 1997 and have progressively moved into adult-alt-pop territory—went platinum, and these guys didn’t.
The stuttering 6/8 drum fill that opens “All the Wars,” the lead track from Here Comes Everyone, left no time to lament multi-instrumentalist Eric Koltnow’s departure or question what the reformed foursome could accomplish. With the avant-garde tendencies of the early records reigned in, Here Comes recasts Aloha as a formidable pop group. Parks shines on “Wars,” a set list staple even today. Cavallario delivers the vocal goods on the band’s first minor hit, the Police-like “Summer Away.” And check new addition Lipple with the assist on marimba and Mellotron.
Sugar played up the pop elements of its predecessor That’s Your Fire. And since then, Aloha’s penchant for analog synthesizers has remained a crucial element in its sonic arsenal. Compared to Fire, which finds a second wind mid-LP, Sugar feels a bit top-heavy, kicking off strong with “They See Rocks,” “Let Your Head Hang Low,” and the swinging “Balling Phase,” which finds Koltnow’s vibes at their most melodious and dynamic. The 10-song set never flags, but doesn’t reach such heights again until the anthemic, piano-driven closer “We Get Down.” That track marks an unofficial farewell to post-rock Aloha and an arrow pointing towards its forthcoming refined pop, as Koltnow moved on and took his vibraphone with him.
Vibraphonist Eric Koltnow is the star of Aloha’s full-length debut That’s Your Fire. He wails on the vibes for pretty much every second of every song, sometimes just for atmosphere, others times for rhythmic effect, and often going fully gonzo up and down the keys in standouts like “With the Lights Out, We Sing” and “A Hundred Stories.” First-generation Aloha wasn’t just the Koltnow show, though. Jazzier, slower-burning material like “Heading East” and “Ferocious Love” proved there were real songs below the din that still make for perfect late-night driving music. Ultimately, That’s Your Fire is a mesmerizing tapestry of tunes that remains a monumental memento and impressive start to a career.