I first encountered Aloha as an undercard at a Ted Leo show. The band’s understated, hypnotic confections couldn’t have been a more radical foil to the jittery blasts of punk energy that Leo and his Pharmacists would pump out later that night. Most of the folks at the show probably forgot about those Aloha guys. For all of its rewarding subtleties, the group’s delicate approach seems destined to be overshadowed by the more extroverted acts of the indie world.
But Aloha is getting better. With each release the group seems closer to unraveling its own puzzle, and the Light Works EP finds Aloha sounding more stark and direct than ever before. Gone are most of the prog and jazz flourishes from previous LPs: The band apparently kept its beloved vibraphone in storage for these sessions. In its place, we find warm and welcoming acoustic arrangements such as “Body Buzz,” which opens the collection beautifully. The lyrics read like an unexpected greeting from an old friend, and the instrumental track’s gentle strumming and sentimental piano evoke the sort of heartwarming feelings that Hallmark cards have exploited for years. Thankfully, the group’s refined, elegant approach steers it clear of any unwanted schmaltz.
Elsewhere, the emphasis on acoustic sounds has the group sounding downright folky. Yet Aloha has a knack for unexpected decorations, as in the horn section that kicks in halfway through “The End.” That creative sense of arrangement, plus singer Tony Cavallario’s breathy vocals, lends the impression that Sufjan Stevens could have cooked up some of this stuff over the weekend at a friend’s studio.
Still, Aloha needs to work on distinguishing its compositions from each other. The band’s liquid, oft-improvised live approach bleeds into its studio work, resulting in homogenous stretches of material. This EP could be a sign of more straightforward offerings to come from Aloha. But without some added dynamic range, these poor guys are just going to keep getting drowned out by the bands with bigger amps. They deserve better than that.