By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Like the Charles and Ray Eames furniture line for which it's named, the Aluminum Group is light and bright, whimsically elegant, severely sensuous. Led by brothers Frank and John Navin, who write the songs and sing them, the Chicago-based sextet fashions a gleaming alloy of retro exotica/lounge, poncey synth-pop, blue-eyed soul, twitchy electronica and ambient hiss. Their fourth album, Pelo, features seven guest musicians, among whom are co-producers John Herndon and John McEntire (Tortoise, the Sea and Cake) and silver-throated Mekons chanteuse Sally Timms. With so many cooks in the proverbial kitchen, it's little wonder that the arrangements are voluptuous and textured, sometimes symphonic; the surprising part is how sleek and unfettered it manages to sound.
The 10 songs on Pelo straddle the line between easy-listening and difficult-listening, between Burt Bacharach and John Cage. An experimental impulse complicates a prettiness that might otherwise seem oppressive: a high-pitched, barely audible electronic whine pierces the sexy soul stylings of "Cannot Make You Out"; jittery computer beats contend with warm, thrumming guitars on "Worrying Kind"; scratchy, random-sounding percussion samples punctuate "Goodbye Goldfish, Hi Piranha." The slinky, bass-driven "If You've Got a Lover, You've Got a Life" sounds a bit like the Style Council filtered through the Magnetic Fields and remixed by Cornelius; "Tom of Finland" is a goofy, glimmering fusion of art-rock, trip-hop and electropop. Mellow guitars nuzzle up against cornets, glockenspiels, marimbas, vibes and vintage keyboards; samplers and drum machines invest fey, lissome pop melodies with big-city grit.
A perfect coupling of the natural and synthetic, Pelo smears the distinctions between artificial and real in a way that seems thoroughly contemporary but without all the po-mo preciousness. "In the cellophane, what looks like one thing, you bought cocaine but got flour," Timms sings, as her cold, tremulous voice vacillates between pity and contempt, sincerity and sarcasm. These lines nicely underscore the Aluminum Group's peculiar genius, their knack for exposing -- but not resolving -- the tensions between the authentic and the ersatz.