Cloud Nothings used to be mediocre. Cloud Nothings used to be forgettable. Cloud Nothings used to be a solo-project. Of their show supporting Crocodiles at the Camden Barfly, this time last year, I referred to their “brand of jangly pop-punk” as “upbeat and energetic but exceptionally bland and generic”. However, Cloud Nothings' new record – 'Attack On Memory' – is the sound of a band revitalised. It is the sound of a band emerging as vital.
Ohio natives Cloud Nothings began as the vehicle for a lone Dylan Baldi, the frontman and principle songwriter who played all the instruments on their first two albums – 'Turning On' and the self-titled follow-up. The inadequacies of those first two flat records were hidden behind infectious melodies, with Baldi pushing for bright, DIY pop-punk (with the emphasis on pop) but failing to pen enough memorable guitar or drum parts. Basically, imagine a boring Mazes with irritating vocals. 'Attack On Memory' is the first album to be recorded as a full band, and as a result it sounds much...fuller. This may also have a little something to do with getting in Steve Albini to man the recording process (that guy who did Pixies' 'Surfer Rosa', THAT GUY WHO DID NIRVANA'S 'IN UTERO'). Although Baldi has stated that all Alibini did during the sessions was play on Facebook, and blog about food (hmmmm?!).
So, how have Cloud Nothings changed? Just listen to the opening couplet of 'Attack On Memory' – and you'll barely recognise them. 'No Future / No Past' is slow-burning, moody alternative-rock – not a million miles away from Pixies, with grumbling bass and eerie whining building to an exhilarating last minute in which Baldi screams “no future, no past” repeatedly. Darker, angrier, and a damn lot better than anything Baldi has written before. However, the second track 'Wasted Days' is not just the best song of their career, it's the best alternative song of the last few months. At nearly 9 minutes, it's much longer than anything else on the album, but it never feels excessively strung-out. Starting off as a simple garage-punk number with a massive vocal hook, it soon gets stuck into a progressive, vocal-less groove, with bubbling sonic textures and climbing, post-hardcore guitars. It’s sprawling, but the climb is never without precision, and the heavy conclusion features Baldi's best ever vocal performance – barking-then-screaming “I thought I would be more that this” over and over with some mighty, mighty passion. It is huge.
Too huge, in fact, as the record never really matches those impeccable heights. The simplistic, pop-punk numbers sound ten times tighter (and three times heavier) than pre-album three, with 'Cut You' and single 'Stay Useless' featuring Cloud Nothings' best ever pop-melodies, and 'Fall In' and 'Our Plans' incorporating an intelligent emo sensibility (like Drive Thru's The Early November, or Deep Elm's roster). These songs are good, great even, but one can't help wishing that Baldi had allowed the band to flesh out these tunes, in the same way they beat up 'Wasted Days' to perfection. You see, the only major gripe I have with Cloud Nothings is Baldi's voice. He basically sounds like a couple of teeny, tiny blocked nostrils, so his voice isn't particularly well suited to the melodic pop-punk that he seems intent on producing. His voice is much better suited to post-hardcore whines, barks and screams, or the groaning grunge of 'No Sentiment' – a brooding mid-paced number with splashy drums and distorted guitar work. The most exciting track actually comes in the form of an instrumental: 'Separation'. This ferocious punk-rock song is built around an insanely catchy, spiky guitar riff (catchier than any vocal hook on the album), and contains urgent, quick-fire drums, with snare, snare, and SNARE all over the place.
If it sounds like I found the album disappointing, then I have misled you. There is real quality to the record as a whole, with the vocals, drums and guitar parts having been considerably improved. The production is spot on, and the song structures are given enough room to breathe sufficiently, effortlessly, yet managing to retain Baldi's sense of sharpness. But just listen to 'Wasted Days' and think to yourself: what if Cloud Nothings produced a whole album of 'Wasted Days''...WHAT IF!? Nonetheless, this is essential listening for fans of any sort of melodic punk (post, pop, garage, etc).
Cloud Nothings - "No Future / No Past" Official Video from Urban Outfitters on Vimeo.