Sugar high

Let the two-and-a-half-minute introduction of synth drone, of tsunami glockenspiel orchestration and tribal drumming serve as fair warning. The record that you’ve just started on is something that requires your full attention. Have a seat. Stop doing the dishes. Stop exercising or making out or talking on the phone. Put the magazine down. Pull the car over to the side of the road. Listen.

And by the time you start listening, Aloha’s Sugar really starts — an assault of four-on-the-floor Wurlitzer piano, washed-out vibraphone ascensions and erratic, assiduous drums and bass.

“I think with a band like us, people are looking for missteps — because we are trying to do everything all at once,” admits Aloha guitarist and singer Tony Cavallario over the phone from his home in Cleveland. “There are four people and everybody wants to do what they individually want to and people are waiting for us to overdo it or shoot ourselves in the foot.”

Keep waiting. By the time the second track, “They See Rocks,” has hit its peak — with Cavallario almost shouting the line “There’s a reason I sing this dream louder than a lullaby” over a wash of brilliantly anxious and unimaginable noise — Aloha has won. Anyone sitting down and paying attention is fascinated. Anyone who is listening is really listening.

Or take “Let Your Head Hang Low,” an up-tempo post-pop gem that starts over a sturdy foundation of bass and rhythm guitar and eventually blossoms into a kind of incantatory anthem. As the textures become increasingly layered (shaker, vibraphone, congas, African gankoqui bells), Cavallario’s message follows suit — eventually becoming an otherworldly dedication to love, loss and exile.

And as one track bleeds with near-complete continuity into another, so do the record’s themes. “It’s hard for me to get an understanding of what the songs are about, because I’m so close to the writing,” Cavallario explains. “I can’t attribute most of the writing to specific things — it’s just what comes out in relationship to the song. I don’t sit around and write nice couplets; more so than ever, ideas come after the music. I have a hard time tracing it methodically to what’s going on. The more songs you write, the more you write like a songwriter would — things more lyrical sounding and more open to interpretation.”

After countless listens, things are still just as open, just as mystifying and intriguing. It’s due in part to the band’s approach to instrumentation, which places Eric Koltnow’s vibraphone in the foreground as both texture and melodic counterpoint over Matthew Gengler’s synchronized bass lines and Cale Parks’ alternating muscular explosions and bop-versed touches behind the drums.

“It’s funny that I’ve talked to so few people about the themes of the record,” Cavallario says. “If there is any kind of thread that runs through the songs, they’re about things missing and things being lost — this quest to hold onto something. That’s why it’s called Sugar, because sugar is something that you’re drawn to that is going to be gone.”

Cavallario draws wisdom for song fodder the old-fashioned way: from road experience and pure rock ’n’ roll expression. “A lot of things about being in a band are that way, especially as things are more and more accelerated. They seem fleeting, people that you will see one time and moments that are over as soon as you step off the stage or out of someone’s living room. Rock bands are eating up the atmosphere with 40,000 miles a year of gas, eating up personal lives and livelihoods. But it’s so right — such a vital expression. Amazing people fly into your life for one night. If you’re lucky, they’re still there when you return next year. You put your thoughts into people’s heads and theirs into yours at an exhilarating pace. Then you sit in a van and ponder them for seven hours.”

When Sugar comes to its fertile conclusion on “We Get Down,” we’re all in well over our heads —miles from the last point of reference, surrounded by fleeting aural glimpses of Elvin Jones, Prefuse 73 and Cap’n Jazz. We are unable to decipher the source of the sounds and the source of the emotions that create them. Then, just before the record ends, one simple line says it all: “If I could,” Cavallario croons, “I’d make up a world as foggy as I feel, as tender as a nerve.” He can. And he did.

Nate Cavalieri is the Metro Times listings editor. E-mail him at [email protected]
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