Monday, April 14, 2014

album review: 'here and nowhere else' by cloud nothings

It's always a risk when a band makes a choice to go dark.

Because let's face it, while there have been several acts who have made the shift work, it's always jarring for the initial audience and there's the long list of bands whose careers imploded by making a 'dark' album. And depending on the critical or popular acceptance, it can shape the course of bands for better or for much worse.

So when power pop group Cloud Nothings announced they were working with legendary audio engineer Steve Albini and were tackling darker material, some original fans had to been feeling uneasy. This was a band who had been steadily advancing with pretty damn solid power pop that skirted the edges of lo-fi, and the question of whether they'd be capable of delivering the same quality - even with Albini, who worked with The Pixies and Nirvana - had to have been raised.

And yet in 2012, they delivered with Attack On Memory, a goddamn great album that showed the band taking huge steps in a more interesting and dynamic direction with a great melodic focus, solid lyrics, and a concept dedicated to rectifying their fans' preconceived image of the band. And what was better was that the album actually turned into a pretty solid commercial hit on its own, being many people's - including mine - first exposure to the band. And thus when they announced a follow-up without Albini or their former guitarist Joe Boyer, I was curious to see where they'd take their musical direction - would they advance even further or would they backslide?

Well, there's a different kind of darkness on this record, but unfortunately, Here And Nowhere Else by Cloud Nothings does feel like a bit of a step backwards. On the one hand, it means that fans of their earlier material before Attack On Memory will absolutely love it, but as someone who thought they hit a creative peak with that 2012 release, this album feels a bit like a backslide, with a number of creative decisions being made that really hamper how much I enjoy this album.

Let's get the elephant in the room out first, shall we, and that's the departure of Joe Boyer and the choice for lead vocalist and guitarist Dylan Baldi to take over for both rhythm and lead guitar segments and remain a three-piece ensemble. And while there are fragments of the innovative melodies that attracted me to Cloud Nothings in the first place, they have nowhere near the same focus, both in composition and in the mix. In fact, the mix balance is decidedly shifted on this album with a much stronger focus on Jayson Gerycz's drums - and you know, it's not exactly a bad shift, because he's a great drummer who can switch up his tempo into double and triple time and has a few rhythmic sections I really liked. But with a lessened focus on that melody line, the songs lose a bit of their catchiness and immediacy to hook an audience, to the point when after multiple listens through this album, I can barely recall a melodic hook that really gripped me.

Part of this is an issue with the production, which is more aggressively lo-fi courtesy of Joe Congleton. Now he's an acclaimed producer and the argument whether its fair to compare him to Steve Albini is not one I want to engage, so let me say this: I don't dislike this style of production - the new Perfect Pussy album had a similar style and I dug the hell out of that - but one of the greatest strengths of Cloud Nothings has been the guitar lines and this album has a lot less focus there. On top of that, I'm not the biggest fan of the guitar production - it's a little inert and flattened and can lack the richer texture that could add flavour to the melodies. And while we do get it on some tracks, most notably on the fantastic album closer 'I'm Not Part Of Me', it doesn't show up enough. And that's not even mentioning the shift in vocal production, because despite the acclaim given to Baldi's raw delivery and presence, the mix puts him near the back - and unlike with Perfect Pussy, it doesn't really serve a purpose.

Now this inevitably takes to the lyrics, and let me get this out of the way: I've never found Cloud Nothings to be stellar songwriters, at least lyrically. But they do work, it's with using few words to make potent statements, in the vein of what Savages did last year with Silence Yourself. And on this album, when I could find or parse out the lyrics, it was much of the same - and honestly, the lyrics do a lot for this album. Like with Attack On Memory, the lyrical focus is inward on the progression of Cloud Nothings as a band, and it's very much concerned with the band's place in time, fighting between the desire to push their sound and innovate and go farther and the desire to stick to what works. The balance creates a feeling of paralysis on this album, and where Cloud Nothings goes further is equating this to the larger feelings of my disaffected generation today. And on songs like 'No Thoughts', the album gains a lot of emotional pathos and the juxtaposition between the generally upbeat nature of the melodies and the underlying melancholic depression of the lyrics is a good one. It's one of the other reasons 'I'm Not Part Of Me' works so well as an album closer because it shows Baldi putting aside the psychic trauma and moving on with his life through the metaphor of getting over a failed relationship.

But here's the problem: the lyrics and songwriting are good enough to deserve more focus, which this album does not consistently provide, and the best songs on this album are when the production actually gives Dylan Baldi some airtime. And indeed, that's the big problem with Here And Nowhere Else as a whole: I don't understand why the focus changed from the melodies and lyrics - because while the lo-fi edges are mostly compelling, they don't really play to the band's strengths. And you can't just blame the production, because the band's choice to not replace Boyer means the solo guitar has to provide the melodic balance on its own, and that doesn't quite happen here to the same extent.

So overall, as I said, I did like Here And Nowhere Else by Cloud Nothings, but I don't love it. I completely get why it's gotten a lot of critical acclaim and I definitely get the appeal, as it's definitely an album that demands multiple listens to appreciate. But I feel the shift in focus does the band a disservice, and instrumentally it feels like a bit of a step back towards a sound to which the band didn't need to return. So with that, the album gets a 7/10 from me and a recommendation, especially if you're a fan of early Cloud Nothings. Otherwise, if you're curious about the hype, it's pretty solid, even though I prefer Attack On Memory a little more. Eh, to each his own.

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