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Let’s Get Small

Frank and John Navin, the brothers who lead the Aluminum Group, will be touring behind their forthcoming Happyness by plane–so they wanted to travel light. Your average band lugs an assortment of instruments, amplifiers, cords, and pedals across the country in a lumbering Econoline, but the Navins have no bulkier baggage to check at the airport than their stage backdrop–a seven-by-nine-foot cloth banner with a collapsible metal frame.

The Aluminum Group caused a stir in the late 90s as a sophisticated yet twee pop sextet. The brothers, both of whom sing, wrote Bacharach-esque melodies and soft-focus grooves reminiscent of Everything but the Girl, and the band fleshed out the baroque, airy arrangements with strings, horns, and analog synthesizers. Since releasing their fifth album, the electronically driven Pelo (Hefty), two years ago, though, the Navins have played infrequent live gigs with just one or two guest players. And their new live setup may seem radically streamlined even to audiences already used to seeing musicians rely on DAT machines and laptops for instrumental backing.

“Let’s forget the laptop,” says Frank. “It wouldn’t fit us unless we had laptop dancers. I thought, ‘Let’s go smaller.'” The brothers eventually decided they’d sing along to MP3 files of their backing tracks, which they’ve loaded onto a single sleek iPod. “I thought it would be really great to have John have this white cord sticking out of his pocket,” says Frank, “with him pulling it out after every song like a bitch phone.”

By contrast, nearly two dozen players appear on Happyness, due October 29 on the Rhode Island-based indie Wishing Tree. Contributors include Susan Voelz, Rebecca Gates, and members of Tortoise, as well as musicians from previous Aluminum Group lineups. In some ways the new disc reconciles the delicate melodies of the band’s second album, Plano, the sophisticated arrangements and extended compositions of its fourth, Pedals, and the electronic textures of Pelo.

The Navins started working on Happyness in early 2001, and became so engrossed in the project that they never toured in support of Pelo. Inspired by producer John Herndon’s home-studio wizardry on that album, they began to experiment, and soon they’d tracked what they estimate as “80 to 85 percent” of the album using Pro Tools in John’s Ukrainian Village living room. Frank spent most of the year writing string and horn arrangements for the guest musicians, whose parts they recorded on the computer as well. John McEntire mixed the album at Soma.

“It all started off with one of us having new songs that we were excited about,” says Frank. “We’d had too much coffee and we were like, ‘Oh my God, let’s do it really quick.'” These songs snowballed into 20 more, and within a few months they’d recorded enough material for Happyness and its follow-up–tentatively titled “Morehappyness.”

Frank jokes that one day they hope to incorporate their vocals into the MP3 files and franchise themselves a la Blue Man Group. But for now the brothers plan to gig as many weekends as they can for the next two years. Both have steady jobs that make regular touring difficult: John works for the Chicago Public Schools, helping physically disabled students learn to use computers, and Frank waits tables at an expensive downtown restaurant. They seem to prefer these quick strikes to the traditional method; John refers to one five-date stretch on the west coast as a “long leg.”

Aluminum Group shows have always been visual treats–in the past they’ve played inside a pup tent onstage (as cameras broadcast the show to nearby monitors) and in front of a rec room facsimile, complete with fake wood paneling, a drop ceiling, and AstroTurf. The challenge this time was to find something striking that wouldn’t cost a fortune to ship around the country. “I thought it would be really cool to have something very collapsible, something you would carry in a suitcase,” says John. “First I was thinking of a garden trellis made of balsa wood that would fold apart.”

So the brothers turned to the Harriet Carter catalog–one of those mail-order sources for decorative toaster covers and monogrammed tchotchkes–and found a trellis that was “so ugly that instead of printing a photo, they ran a drawing of it,” says Frank. But it proved to be as unwieldy as it was hideous. So the Navins blew up a photograph of an iceberg drifting on a vast blue sea, shot in Iceland by their longtime graphic designer Jason Pickleman, and found a lightweight frame for it. “The image is very Bjork,” says John, with only a hint of sarcasm.

The new starkness will extend even to the brothers’ clothes. A few years ago a mutual friend introduced them to an Italian designer at Prada. According to the Navins, he jumped at the opportunity to create their stage duds–and they were thrilled with his conservative yet stylish design.

“At the fitting we were side-by-side in front of a mirror,” says John, “and Frankie said, ‘We are like chic Mormon elders.'”

Though the Aluminum Group have not yet confirmed a Chicago date, they plan to perform here by the end of the year.


New dance clubs seem to crop up here every few months, but the latest addition to the scene is arriving with a bang. At press time, the 22,000-square-foot Sound-Bar–described as an “upscale luxury nightclub” by its flacks–was scheduled to open on Thursday, October 10, with “Little” Louie Vega of Masters at Work on the decks. On Friday, October 11, the club hosts the three architects of Detroit techno–Derrick May, Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson. Kevin Yost, DJ Rap, Armand Van Helden, and Dieselboy are all scheduled to appear later in the month. Sound-Bar is at 226 W. Ontario.

The Opus, a Chicago hip-hop duo featuring former Rubberoom producers Mr. Echoes (aka Fanum) and the Isle of Weight, celebrates the release of its debut LP, First Contact 001 (Ozone), with a show Saturday, October 12, at Subterranean. Former Rubberoom MC Lumba will join the duo on several cuts; the bill is rounded out by fellow locals Primeridian, Thawfor, and Earatik Statik.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.