The one time I met Frank and John Navin, the two Chicago brothers who front the Aluminum Group, I just had to lie to them that the new yellow Volkswagen Beetle I’d driven to the unbelievably tidy apartment one of them lived in belonged to me and not my girlfriend (who’d named the car Miss Furnival). The brothers are tall and well dressed and funny and gay, and while they’re fixing the tea, they’ll get you hating on folks you’ve never met.
Before you start wondering why I didn’t get cast as Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, allow me to introduce you to the terrific records the Navins make—beginning with their not quite terrific 1995 debut, Wonder Boy. An older kid at the college radio station smirked and played me its svelte rendition of “Sweet Child O’ Mine”; I smirked and told her I liked it. And I did, though it was a pleasure of type—the Gunners’ hetero fantasy played as high camp, I get it, cool, can we spin those Superchunk seven-inches now?
Plano in 1998 featured better songs, better playing, and better ideas, and listening to it now I can see it’s where the Navins started really thinking about their music, applying an exactitude that lifted it above the ersatz lounge-/chamber-/orchestral-pop thing that alt-rockers dug for a sec after grunge vacated the marketplace of flannel shirts and Big Muffs. The duo used that precision on ’99’s Pedals to craft a high-gloss fin-de-siècle urban fantasia about Duchamp, auteur theory, and chicken chow mein; not even Jim O’Rourke’s obscenely frilly production could smother the Navins’ devastating wit. The Spanish title of 2000’s Pelo translates as “hair,” which that album did not sport—it’s a chilly, brutal meditation on queasy sex-as-science that glides on gleaming-cube production from a couple members of Tortoise.
For their fifth album, Happyness, the Navins have returned to the futile nightlife rituals they keep pretending will yield satisfying emotional payoffs. Thematically it’s a less ambitious record than Pelo (and in terms of scale, Pedals), but listen to it as the Navins’ Exile in Guyville and its truths are heartbreaking in their weary familiarity: You get older, you get uglier, you get more aware that you’re older and uglier. The Aluminum Group emphasize this in two ways, the first being that they sing lyrics about it, grim little lines like “This bar is a joke/Do you get it?”
The other way is what I really love about the Aluminum Group, and it’s not even a pop trick they thought of: juxtaposing all that messiness against music as clean and clear as a test tube, so it reflects back exactly what it sees. By inhabiting form and genre so thoroughly, the Navins’ music negates your remove as a listener and just sits you down right there in the middle of their Prada-dressed dystopia. I mean, why do you think people wept at Carpenters songs? Because people are idiots? (I’d mention the Pet Shop Boys now, but I don’t know what it feels like to lie to them about owning a car that’s not mine; plus, if I did, you’d think I only know one more band of gay people.) They’re great cognitive dissidents, the Navins, and it’s not even a joke. Do you get it?