Cloud Nothings and the Deathless Song of the Summer Debate
It’s late March, there is still snow on the ground where I live, and yet I already feel anticipatory dread for the onset of our most tiresome annual pop music–related conversation. I am of course referring to endless talk about “summer jams.” And I truly do mean endless: The babble began in earnest around this time last year, when Daft Punk started teasing “Get Lucky” in commercials and then at Coachella. Immediately, dozens of pop pundits tripped over themselves to declare “Get Lucky” the soundtrack of a season that was still several months away from commencing. When summer finally came around, the quacking naturally grew hotter. What about “Blurred Lines”? Or “We Can’t Stop”? Or “Cruise”? Or “Royals”? Or 11 other prospective jams? Seemingly every week, an imaginary jam-off was waged in the press to determine that which is most summery.
Look, I like summer jams as much as anybody. After approximately 145 months of winter, I yearn for summer, period. Play Uncle Kracker’s entire discography in the background for all I care, just please give me a day above 60 degrees already. But what once was an unofficial designation organically determined by listeners is now breathlessly analyzed in the media like a presidential election. By the fall, Billboard and US Weekly were already describing Katy Perry’s “This Is How We Do” as a potential summer jam o’ 2014 candidate. Just as one campaign ends, another begins. It’s enough to make one weary of summer and/or jams, otherwise two of God’s greatest gifts to mankind.
But, hey, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. This is the world we’re stuck with, so I’m putting in an early vote for what I expect to be one of my go-to hot-weather favorites, Cloud Nothings’ “I’m Not Part of Me” from the Cleveland band’s great new album out next week, Here and Nowhere Else.
“I’m Not Part of Me” should be instantly welcoming for fans of Cloud Nothings’ previous record, 2012’s Attack on Memory, since it replicates (and arguably improves upon) that LP’s formula. The guitars are all gritty tones and controlled chaos, the drums are kinetic and stunningly propulsive, and the chorus gets louder and louder each time 22-year-old singer-songwriter Dylan Baldi hollers “I’m not!” until he turns self-negation into a rallying cry. It is ideal music for driving around with the windows rolled down. It is ideal music for the late-night, drunk-ass, “let’s get rowdy” portion of backyard barbecues. I intend to test these theories when the time comes, at any rate.
Baldi started recording as Cloud Nothings in 2009, when he was a freshman in college and retreating to his parents’ basement on weekends to bash out songs on GarageBand. I became a fan after the release of 2011’s Cloud Nothings, which in retrospect sounds tinny and almost twee, though at the time it was a significant step forward from the previous year’s debut, Turning On, which was initially distributed only on cassette and CD-R. Baldi’s songs during this period negotiated a détente between traditional indie-rock and turn-of-the-century pop-punk — my favorite track on Cloud Nothings, “Forget You All the Time,” sounds like a handshake between Guided by Voices and blink-182.
Baldi was young and evolving rapidly, and with Attack on Memory he progressed into a different league. Where Turning On and Cloud Nothings had a certain sweetness about them, Memory was all angst and menace, a tonal shift that was obvious from the moment the album’s opening track, “No Future/No Past,” bounded out of the speakers with the same hard-hitting death rattle that producer Steve Albini supplied to Nirvana’s In Utero (and countless other less-celebrated records). For the first time, Baldi recorded with his tremendous touring band, which gave his songs an unprecedented primal force on record. Memory was such a dramatic change that when I interviewed Baldi shortly before the record’s release, he admitted that he considered releasing it under a new band name.
As much as I loved Memory, part of me missed the innocence of Cloud Nothings’ earlier records. Baldi raged with righteous bile throughout, but it didn’t negate the appeal of the sugary croon he utilized so well on “Forget You All the Time.” The strength of Here and Nowhere Else is that Baldi has reconciled his current direction with his roots, keeping the energy of Memory and adding a little bubblegum from the first two records. For instance, there’s a song called “Psychic Trauma” that begins with the record’s bounciest beat before leaping headfirst in furious double-time to the mosh pit. With one exception — the seven-minute epic “Pattern Walks” — Baldi avoids the sprawl of Memory, opting instead to pack all of that intensity into succinct three-minute flare-shots, like “Just See Fear” and “Quieter Today,” whose pop-punk roots Baldi makes no apparent attempt to conceal.
Baldi’s primary obsession is discomfort — with the outside world, with his own skin, and whatever else you got, really. His songwriting specialty is telling people to go away. “I’m not telling you all I’m going through,” he says on “I’m Not Part of Me,” but you can certainly feel what he’s going through when he screams over those wondrous power chords. But that discomfort does not translate to Baldi’s artistic sense on Here and Nowhere Else, a record (even more than the titanic Attack on Memory) where he has really come into his own as a confident and purposeful record-maker. No need to ponder changing the band moniker this time — Baldi has discovered and now fortified his own unmistakably unique voice.
If you’re looking for really succinct pop-punk ditties, then you’ll want to get acquainted with Dissed and Dismissed, the wonderful debut LP by Oakland-based hardcore musician-cum-power-pop micro-genius Tony Molina. It’s customary when discussing Dissed to mention that the album consists of 12 songs running just more than 11 minutes. Molina enters and exits a song in the amount of time it takes to establish a guitar hook, perform a quick verse, hit a sticky chorus, and play a wicked solo. But what’s more important than the songs’ meager running times is that Molina pulls off these tasks in the precise right amount of time. Dissed leaves you wanting more, but the songs themselves are perfectly rendered sketches that achieve what Weezer and Teenage Fanclub songs take four or five times as long to pull off.
Molina originally released Dissed last year, though the record’s reach was limited after the initial pressing sold out. (Slumberland Records reissued the album on LP, cassette, and digital this week.) Last fall, Molina followed up with the Six Tracks EP for Matador’s Singles Going Home Alone, a vinyl-only subscription series, and he’s currently working on another album to be released later this year.
A veteran of various Bay Area punk bands, Molina’s insistently melodic songcraft on Dissed is a far cry from his previous work. “I’ve been playing hardcore for as long as I’ve been writing pop music, since I was a kid,” Molina told Spin’s David Bevan in 2013. “But to me, hardcore is about being in a band, and pop’s more about writing and recording. I’m always going to want to try playing in a new hardcore band. But I also love the idea of trying to make something that gives you the feeling you get when you hear a Teenage Fanclub record.”
If that was Molina’s objective for Dissed, then mission accomplished. “Can’t Believe” (running time: 63 seconds), “Spoke Too Soon” (42 seconds), and the album-closing stunner, “Walk Away” (a relatively proggy 85 seconds), are excellent examples of fuzzed-out melancholy. Isn’t that the feeling of summer itself, the fruitless hope that fleeting happiness will never end? The joy of Dissed and Dismissed is that you get to start over six times per hour.