The Thieves of Kailua
he beaches and streets of Waikiki shiver with a music that has about as much to do with Hawaii as the theme from Total Request Live does with New York City. But in Hawaii the parasite has so devoured its host a native of average knowledge looks more fondly upon the Tourism Authority commissions emanating from loudspeakered palm trees than someone raised in Manhattan rock clubs does on the noise of Times Square. To kids from Hawaii, beachside resorts aren't quite the Camelots they are to everyone else, but they're close; when a visit from mainland friends provided an excuse to spend an evening watching adults consume overpriced drinks by tiki torchlight, knowing what a theme park you were in didn't make it much less fun, or relaxing, or magical.
Which is why Jason Holstrom's The Thieves of Kailua, which is not a very good record, has such strange and frustrating promise. It's billed as an exploration of Hawaiian music by a Pacific Northwest indie-rocker (Holstrom plays guitar in the United State Of Electronica), but that's not what it is: lyrically the album saunters through Waikiki dusks, past bars with straw taped to the walls and stores filled with nothing but refrigerator magnets reading "ALOHA"; musically it never leaves the Royal Hawaiian's lobby. Assembling an album—especially one this slight and personal, one concerned so minutely and exclusively with the cheery mundanities of tourism—from the lacquered and cloistered sounds of the Honolulu beachfront is kind of a great idea, and Holstrom's Day-Glo production, as immaculate as the maid leaves your bed, is ideal.
Thus The Thieves of Kailua's first half is immensely likable—Holstrom peers out his arriving plane's window on the warm, rumbling "Crystal Green"; he touches ground with a whistle and a shuffle on "Welcome - Clouds Roll In"; a hotel official informs him that "the ukelele band is going to play / Just like they do every single day," a line as serenely wistful as the resort strip's constancy; he meets a girl and some muggers and is laid-back about each. In supporting such anecdotes, the music does a better job than would something more nuanced, but it's not as good at supporting itself—something Holstrom asks of it more frequently as the record progresses, breaking its back with instrumental passages fifteen minutes in and never letting it recover. Over its second half Thieves winds almost into nothing, amiably repeating itself in a series of tracks too brief for anything to emerge, and Holstrom, his lover, and his stolen camera are lost in the soft-focus shuffle.
The easy metaphor here is a vacation that goes on too long, but that's not the right one—it's not Waikiki's magic that fails halfway through but Holstrom's ability to spin a weird kind of pleasure from the detritus of the tourism industry. The album's opening tracks are lurid and ethereal at the same time, a neat trick, and the bright clatter is interesting and a little beautiful. But by track eight we're no longer peering as cheerfully into the corners of our hotel room, and by the end we're just lying on the bed. Cultural critic Paul Fussell once painted Western man as having undergone a five-hundred-year devolution from explorer to traveler to tourist. Jason Holstrom does it in thirty minutes.