Thursday, March 23, 2017

album review: 'life without sound' by cloud nothings

I tend to talk a lot about artistic progression in these reviews, how artists choose to evolve or mature their sound over time, placing everything in context. But here's the unfortunate other side of all of this: sometimes an act might grow or mature or evolve in a particular way that might be good for the band, but not always to my tastes as a critic. And I can't tell you how unbelievably frustrating that is, especially if you can tell the level of quality remains the same - but it happens. Sometimes it just doesn't catch your ear in the same way, it doesn't resonate on the same level.

So take Cloud Nothings for instance. Like most people, I really loved their 2012 Steve Albini-produced album Attack On Memory for its bite and smart hooks and well-defined writing. And yet when they released the follow-up two years later... see, it wasn't that the album was bad, but it didn't have the same edge. Part of which I will blame on a change in producers to John Congleton, but the hooks just weren't as sticky to me, it just didn't feel as sharp, partially because of the loss of their main guitarist and partially because the production seemed to muddy the band's strengths by pushing into fuzzier territory. It just didn't feel as immediate or gripping, and when word was coming down the pipe that this new project Life Without Sound was going to be both a little cleaner - courtesy of producer John Goodmanson, known for his work with Sleater-Kinney and Deathcab For Cutie - a little brighter, a little more relaxed... well, I had concerns. But hey, did Cloud Nothings surpass my expectations?

Okay, I have to be honest - this review got delayed a number of times since I started working on it. Thanks to Patreon votes and my own overloaded schedule and a desire to stay on top of everything, it's only now that this wound up on top. But there's another part to this, and that involves me listening to this record off and on for the past few months since it was released and trying to pull together something of an opinion. And here's the thing: I'm going to be trying to avoid comparisons to Attack On Memory, especially given that record was intentionally a far darker, wiry release that Cloud Nothings were definitely not targeting with Life Without Sound, which is indeed a brighter, I daresay even more accessible than that star-making record. And while there was a part of me that really wanted to just dismiss this out of hand for not hitting that height, a lot of repeated listens have given me the impression that Cloud Nothings have hit a strange sort of balance with Life Without Sound - I'm not sure they're going to ever hit that nervy edge that allowed Attack On Memory to cut, but I think there's something worth considering here - otherwise I probably would have dropped this record from my schedule weeks ago!

And a big part of this - indeed, the element that I think easily pushes this above Here And Nowhere Else - is that they finally hired another lead guitarist to replace Joe Boyer unfortunately named Chris Brown - not the same person, I checked. And given that they were necessarily forced to simplify things when Dylan Baldi was handling both frontman and lead duties, this brings back some of the melodic focus that was missing on that last album. Of course, that's necessarily a consequence of John Goodmanson's production - not only does he tilt the balance of the mix to pick up the cleaner vocals, that guitar melody is much closer to the front of the mix, anchored by sharp bass work from TJ Duke and Jayson Gerycz's consistently underrated drum work, although I do find some of the cymbal pickups to be a bit muddy. And while Goodmanson is no Steve Albini in capturing some of that nervy immediacy that I've loved about Cloud Nothings, he plays to the group's ability to churn out consistent hooks pretty effectively, almost to the point of actually having pop appeal. It's certainly true that songs like 'Modern Act' are among the cleanest and most structured songs that Cloud Nothings ever released, but I'm not denying that the hooks there or on songs like 'Enter Entirely' or 'Internal World' or 'Things Are All Right With You' aren't catchy as all hell, mostly driven by more prominent melodies. And that's also not saying this album doesn't embrace distortion or dissonance when it needs to, from the Muse-like dissonant notes that split through the hook of 'Enter Entirely' to the louder, more cacophonous crescendos that build to some pretty triumphant moments on 'Darkened Rings', almost to the point where you can feel like you're left hanging when they crash back into the main riff. And 'Strange Year' and 'Realize My Fate' both contribute to a pretty downbeat and borderline noise rock or post-punk ending for the record, especially as the grooves simmer and the layers of distortion pile up around the main guitar line.

But here's the odd thing: I actually might prefer the brighter melodic progressions more, especially with Goodmanson's production - he's not giving these bass or the kickdrums or the rhythm guitar the thick, chugging low end to really pay off these darker moments - hell, with the cleaner piano slipping in and the borderline pop-punk vocal melodies and multi-tracking it's almost as if he's terrified of pivoting into really meaty territory. But it seems like nobody told Dylan Baldi that, because while he's capable of more melodic singing, he only brings urgency when his voice gets more guttural and aggressive. When he's in his more melodic range he's actually very reminiscent of Rivers Cuomo with maybe a little more restraint, which can fit the more laid-back vibe but again, it's not exactly imbuing these songs with a shot of greater life to match their hooks. And when you consider the vocals are probably the most audible they've ever been, that's considerable.

Of course, part of this ties into the lyrical arc of this record, as Baldi had stated this is arguably Cloud Nothings' most complex record to date in that department. And I would mostly agree with this, to say nothing of being their most mature. Written during and in the aftermath of a breakup, there's a real acknowledgement of hitting a crossroads both in his lingering feelings and the art that came as their result. He knew he could continue to simmer and stew in his own darkness, lashing out at anyone in his path, but he doesn't want to anymore, and as such the first half of this album has him dismantling the defense mechanism that is his anger and resentment and heartbreak, finding clarity in the light of his feelings and truth but also realizing he's not always right. Indeed, the reason why the first half of this album can feel so triumphant is that he is coming out to the light, breaking out the peace he felt in the shadows into something more pure... only to realize that the rest of the world has a very different view of this sort of complicated intense emotion. 'Modern Act' is the moment where there's real exasperation at the fakers - it's an obvious single choice, but it's a really good one - but then we get an interesting twist. See, he knew the darkness, the misery, he recognized that path of emotion both for himself and his art... but when you step beyond that, he's now very much in uncharted territory, and as much as he might want to go back down along with a partner possibly returning to the picture, that option isn't going to work. It gets to an interesting and emotionally nuanced point, that there's an odd sort of comfort in what society would brand as bad emotions or self-destructive tendencies, mostly because of its familiarity to so many, especially in art. And now not having that comfort or direction despite being a better place, it leaves the album on an uncertain ending, that fear of the unknown leading potentially dragging him into an unfamiliar, possibly more chilling emptiness. Again, some of this feels like conjecture - like most Cloud Nothings records the language is pretty basically structured and oblique, almost to the point of being underwritten - but between the album cover and the odd emotional throughline of the album, I think it fits.

But where do I fall on this album as a whole? Honestly, I do like it, mostly because Cloud Nothings have returned to a quartet sound while still advancing an interesting thematic arc with really good hooks. That said, it's definitely a record that grows over time, as it's nowhere near as immediate or punchy as an album like Attack On Memory, and I can see some people thinking the production makes some segments blur together - it's consistent to the point where it really could afford to take more chances. But as a whole, I'm thinking a very strong 7/10 and a recommendation. Providing you haven't heard this album already - it did drop in late January, I'm really late to the punch here - it's worth considering, especially if you're into the more accessible side of guitar-driven indie rock.
Otherwise... it's a tough record to evaluate, but in opening all those possibilities, it's worth your consideration.

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