There are a whole lot of bands around these days that sound a whole lot like the ‘90s, and Cloud Nothings is one of the best.
It’s important to remember that for many youthful artists and bands currently on the scene, the music of indie’s explosion from twenty years ago can sorta serve as Their Own Private Classic Rock. The first big point in Cloud Nothings’ favor is that the recordings don’t register as a hodgepodge of influences strung together in the absence of/attempt to locate a tangible musical voice; instead they sound like the work of one strapping young band.
Did I say band? Indeed I did, and that’s another interesting feature in Cloud Nothings’ trajectory. Commencing with records that inhabited (mostly by necessity) the thick of the lo-fi noisy-pop zone, guitarist/songwriter Dylan Baldi’s project quickly and sensibly evolved into a full band dynamic as the good words spread about a fresh-faced and talented tunesmith from Cleveland, OH. There were some understandable growing pains as the transition was made; from my angle, 2010’s self-titled LP suffered from too many songs that felt like reheated ‘90s pop-punk. The problem was that Baldi’s hooky songs sounded great through the constrained window of lo-fi’s bedroom/basement form but suffered when applied to a bolder/heavier rock sensibility. Thankfully on the Cloud Nothings’ new long-player Attack on Memory the kinks have been knocked out and then some; it’s a record that serves as both a worthy document of development and as Baldi’s most diversely realized group of songs.
A lot of old heads will give too much of the credit for the LP’s success to producer Steve Albini, and in a sense this is understandable. Up to this point it wouldn’t have been inappropriate to describe Cloud Nothings as quirky or nerdy, in large part due to Baldi’s adenoidal singing style, but on Attack on Memory the music registers as naturally heavy, with the leader’s voice having quickly matured into a appealing rasp that feels truly complimentary to the music instead of just accentuating a sharp contrast, which was often the case the previous LP. And the first two tracks on Attack on Memory make clear just how willing Baldi is to shake up the program of his own success. Opener “No Future/No Past” hits upon a mid-tempo bass heavy exercise in delayed dynamic release that feels like something the Touch and Go or Dischord labels would’ve released around ’92 or so (for kindred examples think Tar or Jawbox), and “Wasted Days” summons up the same era’s indie-centric combination of abrasiveness, melody, volume and velocity without sounding beholden to any specific exponent of the style. That the song is stretched out to eight and a half engaging minutes sets it up as a particularly apropos set closer in its probable ability to transform contemporary club crowds into a messy mass of flailing frenzy; kinda like that Archers of Loaf show you saw back in ’93, except minus that one insistently crowd-surfing dork who managed to give you a stiff-arm right in the face (screw that guy).
But Baldi hasn’t forsaken his pop roots. Both side one’s closer “Fall In” and the flip’s opener “Stay Useless” add to the sum of his melodic progressions, and while the pop-punkishness is still present, on Attack on Memory it’s starting to channel the thornier, more appealing exponents of the genre’s ‘90s manifestation such as Pacific-Northwest wildcards Seaweed, for one example. That these more typical offerings are followed by the very cooking instrumental “Seperation” helps to differentiate Baldi’s Cloud Nothings from other past and current bands that operate(d) with one clear figure in the leadership role, a place where music lyrics and vocals always seem to march in lockstep. And unlike Girls’ Christopher Owens’ near-instrumental “Lawrence”, a tribute to songwriter Lawrence Hayward of excellent UK band Felt, Baldi’s “Seperation” simply registers as the bold desire to rock the hell out, easily succeeding without lessening the leader’s primacy on Cloud Nothings’ state of affairs one little bit.
It also proves that Baldi has done much more than just dip a toe into the ‘90s indie rock pond, making Attack on Memory a sincere extension of the far from exhausted template of an earlier era (e.g. Fugazi’s long list of instrumentals, here [possibly] influencing Cloud Nothings in a manner markedly different from the DC band’s effect on say Mogwai) and not a shallow offering of nostalgia (i.e. “Famous For 15 Minutes: Indie Rock Edition – The Presidents of the United States of America vs. Veruca Salt).But maybe the most promising aspect of Attack on Memory is signified through album closer “Cut You”’s abrupt fadeout, which posits this group as very much a work in progress, with Baldi having thus far avoided the potential trap of a codified sound. Things are still very much up in the air for Cloud Nothings; while all the strengths and growth they flaunt on this LP are a commendable achievement in themselves, as the needle lifts Attack on Memory sounds even better by boding extremely well for the future.
Of Montreal’s Paralytic Stalks clocks in at just under an hour and it ultimately registers every minute of its running time. However, that shouldn’t be read as a bad thing.
Ten albums deep into a career that falls into two distinct halves (with a little bit of expected overlap) beginning with the Elephant 6 twee-pop era and followed by the more stylistically robust glam and R&B inflected portion to which Paralytic Stalks is the latest unfurling, leader Kevin Barnes hasn’t exactly been identified with the idea of restraint in creativity at any point across that span. And this certainly has its appeal; part of the fun in Of Montreal’s younger toy-town psyche incarnation was the boldness of execution. 1997’s debut Cherry Peel made it immediately clear the band’s (as a band they indeed were in those days) music was a love it or leave it alone proposition. With the shift essentially begun with 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic and solidified on the big indie splash of 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, Barnes’ confessional, heart-on-sleeve album-as-therapeutic cleansing has probably turned off as many listeners as it has won over with its conceptual boldness, judicious stylistic pilfering and strident agenda of newness.
Indeed, any curious body looking to dip a metaphoric toe into the pond of murky mascara that is Of Montreal should begin with Hissing Fauna, which remains his most widely appreciated release. Since that time, Barnes has been messing with the program of Fauna’s success with wildly divergent results, and Paralytic Stalks is the latest attempt to test the boundaries of his sound world and challenge the perceptions of his listenership. As released on double-LP vinyl Stalks can be summed up as having a relatively accessible disc followed by one that’s significantly less so. And it can be tempting to predict that in a decade sides A and B of many copies will be showing a lot more of the ol’ snap, crackle and pop of frequent play than will sides C and D. This is pure conjecture of course, and in fact Paralytic Stalks already feels like the kind of release that begs for a re-reviewing in six months’ or a year’s time.
My personal early impression is that it takes a little too long to really get cooking, not fully igniting until the arrival of its third track “Dour Percentage”, which sounds like the product of a fictitious mid-‘70s collab between David Bowie and Todd Rundgren recorded in the house of Gamble and Huff. Alas, in another era it would’ve made a great single, and for that matter so would the song immediately following it, “We Will Commit Wolf Murder”, which combines the by now expected glammy atmosphere with Barnes’ appealingly Robin Hitchcock-like vocal inflection before the song redirects into a tidy techno showdown. And “Malefic Dowery”’s flowery music-hall pop actually feels somewhat in line with the post-Barrett pop-direction Hitchcock explored back in the second half of the ‘80s, though Barnes’ weirdness is more immediate, and the relative directness of the lyricism is not only different from Hitchcock’s but distinct from the looser imagery found on the rest of the album. From there the nearly nine minutes of “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff” is the gateway to the record’s more experimental second half, and it’s easily the most successful example of Barnes’ ambition on the whole set (it’s certainly the most rocking), it’s pivot point standing as one of the release’s high points.
Barnes has stated the influence of 20th century classical heavyweights like Penderecki, Ives and Ligeti on Stalks, and that’s enough for some snipey folks to bellow the “p” word (that would be pretension) in his direction. Not me. The record’s last three tracks all show a desire to unfurl into drifts of abstraction, and I’ll take Barnes word for it regarding the specifics of his inspiration. I don’t think he’s pretending, and I don’t think ambition (successful or not) is any kind of artistic crime. To the contrary, I welcome it, particularly in comparison to the disappointingly smoothed out and safe direction of 2010’s Of Montreal effort False Priest. I do however think that his flights of experimentation could’ve used some editing (or in the case of “Wintered Debts” a few of the more fragmentary song bits could’ve benefited from some expanding), for in the end the finished result lacks the depth required to sustain such a long chunk of the album’s running time.
Word on the street is Stalks’ “Exorcismic Breeding Knife” is getting likened to “Revolution No. 9”, and if so it’s the kind of wide open observation that can either be paid as a compliment or wielded as a putdown. I won’t deny it crossed my mind while listening, and that I dug the slight similarity. It’s also worth mentioning how that particular bit of Beatles weirdness was in large part just a crib upon John Cage’s Variations IV, so people eager to brand Kevin Barnes as pretentious should perhaps take that parallel into consideration. In no way am I equating Paralytic Stalks and The White Album in terms of quality, I’m just noting the similarity in tactics.
If the boldness of STALKS’ aims ultimately fall short, its second half is far from a failure, and in fact “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission”, the record’s closing and longest track at over thirteen minutes, actually is the most successful of the final three experiments, opening strongly and heading gradually for outbound territory before culminating with a sweet bit of melancholy piano balladry that shows off Barnes’ potential at stripped-down, straight-ahead songwriting. In the end the ambition of PARALYTIC STALKS registers as a sincere attempt at artistic growth rather than as folly, and in a contemporary music scene rife with acts well versed with playing it safe that’s a real breath of fresh air.