January 24, 2012

Test Spin: Cloud Nothings

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One of the best known concepts in musical lore is the idea of the sophomore slump. It goes like this: after a band from nowhere turns out a highly praised and hyped album, the band’s newfound popularity pressures them to quickly release new material. Expectations for the album grow to unsustainable heights by the time the sophomore album is released. The album is condemned as disappointing by critics and fans alike, and the band fades into obscurity.

But an article from the U.K. newspaper The Independent turns that logic on its head, and compellingly claims instead that it’s really the third album that’s the challenge.  Bands begin “with a fresh but under-developed sound and then experiment with production…on their second.” But by the third album “the original formula is too weak to build on and the well of creativity has run dry.” Examples listed included well known bands like The Strokes, and Bloc Party. Cloud Nothings have been following this exact trend: their first album Turning On was lo-fi beach fuzz pop that was heavy on melody hooks, while their second self-titled album refined their sound, as if someone just learned how to use studio equipment, into beach power-pop.

But while the songs were appealing they were nothing more than fun generic songs, possibly leading to a bleak future as a generic beach pop band. Their third album, Attack on Memory, thus became their watershed test to demonstrate if they were out of ideas. Fortunately for us (and them) Attack on Memory is one of those few successes where a band breaks past its third album barrier and creates something that is fresh and ambitious. Attack on Memory is such a big departure from the sound of Cloud Nothings’ first two albums that it’s hard to believe that all three albums were from the same band. Through the album’s eight intense songs the band followed its own creative instincts instead of the latest trends. This meant abandoning the lo-fi fuzz and carefree surf pop they adopted, when Best Coast and Male Bonding were at the peak of blogosphere hype, to evolve into their present sound that is uncannily reminiscent of post-hardcore 80s-90s bands like Fugazi and Rites of Spring.

Starting track “No Future/No Past” heralds their new sound as somber guitars play over a contemplative piano in the background while front man Dylan Baldi sings short indistinguishable phrases. In a true it-gets-better moment that one feels when sharing a song with friends, Baldi slowly transforms his bored voice into guttural sounds of rage and anxiety, getting more desperate with each repeat, until the song reaches its climax, the power chords deliver an adrenaline rush, and Baldi repeatedly screams the song’s title. But transitioning to an entirely different genre is difficult, no matter how determined a band is.

Thankfully, to make sure that their songs remain focused, the band worked with the best possible producer for their sound, the famous Steve Albini. The record has his fingerprints all over it, but Albini’s influence is clearest in the album’s second track, “Wasted Days.” The spaced out guitar jams, pumping bass line, and aggressive classic punk drumming hit the listener full on from the very start, possessing a maniacal energy that it never truly lets go of, ending with Baldi’s raw screaming hardcore-punk style voice as everything converges into a disorienting clash. At almost nine minutes in length, “Wasted Days” is ambitiously epic, twice the length of the second longest track and is definitely one of the contenders for top songs of 2012.

The two songs that follow also happen to be the two most accessible songs on the album. “Fall In” and “Stay Useless” show Baldi’s continued penchant for catchy pop hooks, proving that the album is not entirely an Albini creation.  The biggest hook here has to be in “Stay Useless,” with its anthemic emo chorus: “I need time to stop worrying/I need time to stay useless/I need time to start moving.” Though great songs by themselves, their juxtaposition with the other dark and abrasive Fugazi-like songs like “No Sentiment” feels out of place.  Nevertheless, for a band that was previously composing harmless and fun, but dead end songs, Attack on Memory is a great first step that has in effect has given the band a second life and a new chance to earn well deserved buzz for their transition in the ever fickle music community. “Never thought,” Baldi strains to sing in “Wasted Days,” “that I’d end up this way.” Nobody else saw it coming either.

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng