I don't know if Cleveland, Ohio experimentalists Aloha have stumbled onto anything that might become the future of rock music on their sophomore album, Sugar. I do know that the album likely will not lift the band into the stratosphere of popularity, nor will it even give them the luxury of selling out club dates from coast-to-coast. At the very least, however, I'm sure that in five years time some relatively popular young band will try to distill the essence of Aloha, assuming they can find it, into radio-friendly tunes with a strong musical base, and make a lot of money doing so. Perhaps a critic for a free big-city weekly will use them as a comparison for reviews of other bands. Perhaps Sugar will earn them enough of a cult following to ensure a boisterous welcome at major campuses throughout their native Midwest. They've earned all that, I suppose; indeed, their dedication to making intricate songs for audiophiles can be seen so easily that I'm tempted to proclaim this a visionary album, years ahead of its time, and one that every producer will be sneaking tricks from for the foreseeable future.
Let's not go nuts, however. Aloha are known, if they're known at all, for their unconventional approach to rock. Multi-instrumentalist Eric Koltnow specializes in the vibraphone; the entire band likes free jazz a lot, borrowing liberally from the song structure and often improvising entire live shows; and now they've integrated world music, most prominently African percussion, into several cuts on Sugar. Despite these broad influences, however, at the end of the day Aloha are still a Midwestern American rock band, and their rambling songs are just rock songs - elaborate rock songs, mind you, but rock songs nonetheless. It's on that score that this album disappoints, when it does disappoint. Dealing with the "experimental" label can be difficult, since its application beyond the realm of science denotes something whose success is far from guaranteed - we anticipate experiments going awry, after all. Experimenting is fine, but hardly an end in itself, and it's best to withhold our praise until we know the results.
What Aloha are really experimenting with here are their own moody, Brit-rock influenced songs. They add extra percussion - in the form of Koltnow's xylophone, triangle, and, of course, his vibraphone - to songs already featuring long instrumental sections that meander between loosely structured segments. The only weakness is the basic songwriting - with a few exceptions, of course, these songs are downbeat and fairly disposable. Lead singer Tony Cavallario also tends to write lyrics like a Hindu mystic: "the happiness eludes us, we had it once but to hold it is to lose it." Adding the dense instrumentation, then, is like building an Italian marble pool in the backyard of a split-level suburban: it adds value, alright, but can only go so far. There are, nevertheless, a few highlights, such as "Let Your Head Hang Low" and "Balling Phase" that should vindicate their cult followers. And in all honesty, this is the sort of album that grows on you. The best parts of the album can only really be enjoyed in context, and while a few songs should probably not have been released, it's hard to envision a different direction for this album. For listeners with a great deal of patience, then, Sugar may pay off in many pleasant and unexpected ways.