Album review: Aloha by Cricket Rumor Mill

(Hi and welcome to what happens when I love an album so much it made me tweak how I’m approaching this blog.)

Aloha, Cricket Rumor Mill
Released: 19 Feb. 2021

While whoever cultivates the most authentically obscure taste in music obviously wins, the downside is that you’re stuck with a lot of what-ifs and wanting more. There are so many bands I have loved so intensely who only gave their small but enduringly rabid fanbase a gem or two as a teasing whiff of the greatness that could have been — which, fine, is comparatively better than the pain of watching a band you love not know when to quit, but it still sucks when you can’t shake the sense that you were robbed of a back catalogue deeper than, like, maybe one full-length album and some split EPs (lookin’ at you, Recess Theory).

I had no idea I spent 16 years waiting for this album. I had no idea this was even a thing I could hope for.

Cricket Rumor Mill was yet another gift from the college-radio-station gods. If Only Then, shockingly not the only recording I tracked down from a largely unknown band half a continent away, is 42 minutes filled with all the things I love: brassy horns, richly layered strings, the occasional assertion of some charmingly deployed I think banjos, all of it forming this nebulous cloud of music that ethereally hovers and floats like that thing you do with milk and droplets of food color kaleidoscoping away from a soapy Q-tip while you’re tripping your face off in a friend’s kitchen and dazzlingly awestruck by the intensity of all the input coming at you — and so, I assumed, the band was also fated to silent obscurity aside from this one album my college station was lucky to snag (never underestimate the musical payoff of locational proximity to the Ivies).

So of course it didn’t even register as a possibility that I’d ever hear a note of new music from this Chicago trio again. But that hasn’t stopped me from loving this band deeply, if not also solitarily, since, like, 2005. After inexplicably returning If Only Then to the radio station’s stacks in what I assume was Past Me’s attempt to share it with others, I and my musical library eagerly gobbled up Renderings and some tracks from their label’s compilation album of similarly ambient post-rock. It only accounted for an hour and a half of music, but it was an hour and a half of loving every single song.

Here’s where things get unfair: This album can’t possibly exist for me independently of its predecessors. I distinctly remember playing If Only Then at my last boyfriend’s place, and there are not many things at all from that era worth talking about (music being almost all of the things that are). I haven’t just been listening to this band for more than a decade and a half: I’ve been wildly in love with their music for all that time, too.

If Only Then has been a part of my life since the latter half of college, and I loved my college experience. Still, there were a lot of days I stared up at the glow-in-the-stars I absolutely put in every single dorm room I had and cried for reasons I couldn’t always identify, though usually because College Me pulled some of that astoundingly dumb shit all freshly minted adults need to be smacked with as brutal but necessary learning lessons. I spent a lot of time thinking about transferring because I wondered if I could be happier somewhere new, until I realized that’s just either life or my life. This band was there through all that, plus the rest of college and all of adulthood to come. And the neat thing about purely instrumental music is that it fits in places most other music doesn’t. I get lost in lyrics easily — which isn’t a bad thing but, god, is it ever distracting.

These 90ish minutes of music predating Aloha have seen a playtime disproportionate to their number: Last.fm sez I’ve listened to Cricket Rumor Mill 1,886 times since 2010 (when I began using the site), which doesn’t mean much until you consider that my most-played artist divides its 6,573 scrobbles across, like, seven albums. Let’s trot out a chart to belabor this point, which doesn’t even need that 2021 spike to make up for the lack of pre-2010 data (there was no elegant screenshot solution to prove this data correlates to CRM, so please enjoy the bonus bottom-10 song plays):

(It’s worth noting that I had to reupload this graph because I played Aloha so goddamn much during the three weeks between starting this post and actually getting around to finishing it that screenshots from mid-February were no longer accurate by the ides of March. I’m in the middle of changing jobs so time is whatever the superlative of liquid is and personal projects haven’t been getting much love lately.)

Aloha was originally recorded in 2007, two years after If Only Then and 14 years before it was released. It sounds like every drop of all that distance between the two, though. It is grown-up and focused and nuanced and confident and richly, symphonically cacophonous and lovingly wrought and, my predilection for hyperbole notwithstanding, I cannot possibly overemphasize how I felt the impact of all the time that’s passed since then and now with a gobsmackingly tangible force.

If Only Then has this DIY almost jazzy freeform feeling of being ethereal and a little dreamily muddled. Aloha is lush and layered rock all its own. The aptly named “Here’s Where the Similarities” end, the penultimate track, is the closest thing Aloha gets to Cricket Rumor Mill’s roots, but even that gossamer haze feels more reined-in and structured than before, embracing artistic deliberation instead of trying to impress the room by floating every which way except for where you’d expect.

Aloha credits a lot of contributing musicians on its Bandcamp page, and it should because it is grounded in taking all these different instruments for a stroll to see what they can do together while going as big as they can the whole time. It might not make for an album as unexpected as the band’s older stuff but it is tighter, more cohesive, more cognizant of delayed gratification through obliterating crescendos and, honestly, just more impressive overall for it.

And that’s what ultimately makes this so unfair. Cricket Rumor Mill’s preceding works hold a hugely signifiant place in my indie-rock heart but now I kind of feel like those earlier songs are a little more abandoned than finished, like half-formed dreams that could have been teased into one powerhouse album with just a little more oomph behind them. I have played the absolute hell out of those older tunes but this is one of those albums I instinctively restart as soon as it ends until it’s three hours later and I still don’t want to listen to anything else. It’s just that good. I always knew CRM were something special but Aloha feels like they finally realized how great they actually are, too. They made an artistic airiness work within the context of their music before but here they filled that space with something more dynamic and exciting and almost frenetically spectacular and Aloha is all the better, richer, more nuanced and more satisfying for it.

You can only put the whole album up to 11 if you land the closer, though, and part of me wonders if ending on the ecstatic triumph of “Flurry of Late Wagering” is maybe why I love this album so much. The whole thing delivers in ways I couldn’t have even known I wanted until it happened but “Flurry” is a crusher that does not relent even up to its last blast of a horn section that I think you might have to have a heart of stone not to feel.

The song is hellbent on making sure the album goes out with a bang, only it’s less of a bang and more of a wall of that horn just fucking whaling on every single note it heaves into the world, not budging an inch until it’s depleted its resources and giving everything it’s got until then. If “Goodbye Sky Harbor” is a monument to thoughtful, carefully measured last tracks delicately unspooling an album’s parting shots for an understated wistfulness packing an emotional punch in its own right, “Flurry of Late Wagering” is proof that sometimes the only way to do an ending worth tackling is with a grand finale that leaves everything on the table and goes out in a screaming hail of pitch-perfect orchestration. It is an intensity that is a breathless delight to behold. And it is also entirely possible I cried through a late-night-me-time charcoal mask over this song because after, like, easily a dozen listens, Aloha’s last track started to take on the feeling of a final bow, and the impact of all that compounded time hit me square in the feels. The album’s been out for a month and it’s still packing a punch every time I play it. (Which has been a lot — didja see my bar chart up there?)

That’s what I mean when I say Aloha hits as hard as it does because of what came before it. The horns aren’t just brassy now: they’re bright. There are discernible ebbs and flows shaping this kinetic interplay that wasn’t in such sharp contrast before. Every note is declarative, every instrument is well-defined and playing its part as hard as it can. And it’s not that these things all go into creating an album that sounds incredible. It’s that there is maturity and there is reality, and this album sounds like three guys who realized while they might never be famous, they still sure as hell can put everything they’ve got into one album that feels every bit as celebratory and multidimensional and as heartfelt as an authentic labor of love should.

If this is the swan song Cricket Rumor Mill goes out on, a blasting horn is as symbolically fitting as it is cinematically satisfying. Aloha, in its titular ambiguity as either a long-awaited greeting or an inevitable goodbye, might have ripped open the old wound of knowing I’ll never have enough Cricket Rumor Mill in my life and library, but it’s hard to ask for more when a surprise of an album gleefully blows apart your expectations of what music can do.

2 thoughts on “Album review: Aloha by Cricket Rumor Mill

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