After 14 Years, Queer Indie Pop Royalty The Aluminum Group Are Back With New Music
When brothers John and Frank Navin, dba The Aluminum Group, self-released their debut Wonder Boy in 1995, the landscape of openly LGBTQ artists was sparse, queer content still a novelty amidst the post-grunge alt-rock ascendency. Their sound was unmistakably soft, teasing and, at times, acerbic. Now, 14 years on from the 2008 completion of their “Happyness” trilogy (Happyness, Morehappyness and Little Happyness), the brothers have returned with their eponymous new record The Aluminum Group. Is it finally time for these groundbreaking Chicagoans to take their place among indie pop royalty? Do they even care?
“The only lucky people who make money from music are the superstars and those rare indie superstars,” John Navin has said. “We never fell into either category. I don’t know what motivates artists. I hope it’s not money. I mean, money is nice — it’s a calling card, it gets you into everything — but I never thought for an instant about it because it wasn’t in the cards for us. We made some, [and] still do with royalties. But mostly, like Blanche Dubois in Streetcar, we rely on the kindness of strangers, who had bigger bucks than we did. Frankie and I have been blessed knowing [and] loving people who are far more generous financially than we could ever be, and so they helped us many times. Many of our records would never have been completed had it not been for their generosity. They know who they are and we are forever in their debt. The incentive for Frank and I was making something we loved — that’s about it. The rest is an afterthought.”
You can feel the love (and the imprimatur of experience) in the 10 tracks of The Aluminum Group. The brothers take turns as vocalists, though it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart — both have a languorous tenor with a soothing low end, and a near-conversational approach to phrasing that brings a whispered intimacy to their matter-of-factly observed tales of gay life and more.
“Colour My Lips” is a jaunty orch-pop slice of drag queen revelry. LTR’s are up for discussion in the conflicted “Loosen the Knot” (which might also be a subtle nod to the necessity of open relationships). The ’60s swing of “Condo #9” is an observation of both the changing tenants of the titular space and a meditation on the passing of time. And the flirtation at the heart of “The Office Party” is the kind of banal dalliance that’s inspired countless porn flicks (and rom-coms), though its subtle dance between the male protagonists engaging in an office hookup will be familiar with many who remember living life through codes and signals (all that work to keep our sexual proclivities clandestine).
The Aluminum Group are erudite, well-educated men — they’re named after a design collection by Charles and Ray Eames, and both brothers have lived professional lives away from the spotlight of indie cult adoration. They can occasionally seem too intellectual, too cold, but only in the United States is intelligence used against someone pejoratively. To me, they’re like a mellower version of Pet Shop Boys: funny, a little melancholy and very precise in their depiction of gay life (theirs, of course, but that extends to us as well). It’s nice to welcome them back for what we can only hope is a victory lap in their career.