September 15, 2005

Popularity Contest

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In this day and age, it has become increasingly difficult to define indie rock. Is it a collection of Adam Brody’s personal faves that become enmeshed in a series of O.C. Mixes? Is it the raw, un-commercialized, old school rock ‘n roll sound of bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes? Or does it go beyond the music and embody the feeling that you get when you walk into your favorite vintage store on a rainy day (yes, the Salvation Army downtown counts), throw down 30 bucks and walk out with a sweet velvet blazer that your dad probably wore in 1978?

On Nada Surf’s follow up to their 2003 album Let Go, they seem to embody the latter. Their newest album, The Weight is a Gift, is an astonishing improvement from Let Go, a disappointment that aims for the same slow, casual sound as Pavement’s Brighten the Corners but fades into cliched, melancholy oblivion. Sure, some of the songs are O.C.-accessible, like the lyrically immature “Inside of Love,” but most of the songs are just too sappy and uncreative. I mean, if frontman Matthew Caws has to resort to singing a monotonous, underdeveloped ballad in French (“La Pour Ca”), there seems to be a problem. Hey, anything on Let Go beats the band’s 1996 sugar-coated single “Popular” (“I’m a quarterback / my mom says I’m a catch / I’m never last picked / I got a cheerleading chick”). But lets not dwell on the past.

While The Weight is a Gift reverberates against a backdrop of melancholy, each song maintains a twinge of upbeat originality that keeps the record from spiraling into the depths of mope-rock music. Caws’ voice is the perfect blend of pleasant crooning and indifference, his high-pitched tone carefully straddling the line between beauty and sappiness. Only when the harmonies kick in does Caws’ voice become muddled and whiny, as is the case on the melodramatic, pleading “Do it Again.” For the most part, the lyrics are much more mature than on Let Go. On the multidimensional “What is Your Secret,” Caws harmonizes with himself to produce a confessional song about indifference towards love.

The highlight of the record comes in the middle, where Nada Surf tones down the guitars in favor of accentuating Caws’ vocal ability. The curiously titled, “Your Legs Grow” features Caws repeating the phrase “Cold but not that deep / Cuz your legs grow” in a voice that is comforting and tender. The string section enhances Caws’ vocals, making it the perfect song for that perfect sentimental moment with that perfect girl/boy (think Ryan Atwood and Marissa Cooper). Nada Surf transitions awesomely into “The Blankest Year,” a catchy, upbeat song that, despite its length (it’s only two minutes and 13 seconds), swaggers with confidence and makes you want to get up and dance.

All in all, the album is much more mature than anything Nada Surf has released in the past. If anything, the album proves to hecklers and critics that Nada Surf can no longer be classified as ’90s one hit wonders like Harvey Danger and Semisonic. But hey, they can still appear on the next O.C. mix, right?

Archived article by Jonny Lieberman
Sun Contributor