Cloud Nothings - Attack on Memory (2012)
The first half of January has left me with an unprecedented desire to start the new year over in a way that I could actually be happy about. Because of the way 2012 started for me, and because of the events that have transpired already in this barely begun new year, I’ve gotten something of a late start in listening to new music. I haven’t felt inspired or even mentally capable of actively listening to new music lately, much less judging and writing about it. In order for me to get back into the swing of things, as it turned out, all I really needed at this point was a great new album to come out of nowhere and amaze me. I don’t know if it was my finely tuned intuition or just blind luck, but somehow the first new record I listened to in 2012 was exactly the one I was looking for.
Cloud Nothings is a band that has been kicking around the lo-fi indie rock circuit since 2009, when frontman Dylan Baldi recorded a collection of songs on his laptop and received some buzz back when the lo-fi craze was still in high gear. Baldi’s band went through some lineup changes and released a couple more records in the subsequent years, including a decent sophomore LP Cloud Nothings in 2011. It was catchy and fun, but pretty low on substance, which was hard to come by in the increasingly played-out lo-fi scene. When I was compiling my top 50 albums of 2011 list, I wrote about the Cloud Nothings side project Total Babes (which doesn’t feature Baldi), calling them “far and away the better band” and praising their debut album Swimming Through Sunlight. I still love that record, but after listening to the new Cloud Nothings LP Attack On Memory, I’m starting to heavily regret making that declaration.
Where did Attack on Memory come from? What sort of creative revelation prompted such a radical change in style from Baldi’s previous work? Where do I even begin in describing the creative leaps that Cloud Nothings must have made to produce this record?
Well, for one thing, this band is not doing the lo-fi thing anymore. That’s nothing particularly special on its own, as a number of former lo-fi bands have made the transition to higher fidelity production over the courses of their careers. But unlike their formerly lo-fi peers Best Coast, Male Bonding, and Times New Viking, Cloud Nothings have made that transition seem genuinely inspired. Instead of just raising the production values on their sunny pop-punk gems, Cloud Nothings have updated their production aesthetic to suit their completely subverted new style of music. Enlisting legendary producer/curmudgeon Steve Albini in the studio, Cloud Nothings’ new LP has a clear and distinctly-analog sound.
Working with Albini must have had some influence on the band’s style, but I believe that Cloud Nothings themselves deserve most of the credit for their impressive new direction. The band has all but completely abandoned the uptempo, carefree pop songs that defined their earlier work and come out the other end of the creative tunnel with eight aggressive, emotive, and surprisingly heavy punk songs of staggering ambition.
With a sonic palette derived from ’90s emo and an experimental bent all their own, Attack on Memory is true to its name. The record ruthlessly demolishes the lazy nostalgia of the reverb-laden beach pop acts that just a year ago, Cloud Nothings could have counted themselves amongst. Opening track “No Future/No Past” immediately heralds this stylistic sea change, settling into a layered instrumental groove reminiscent of Built To Spill with Baldi singing short, indistinguishable phrases over it. He repeats each four line verse with growing desperation in his voice, transforming the boredom that his voice conveys at the beginning into genuine anxiety and rage. By the climax of the song, the guitars and percussion lurch forward in a cathartic rush, as a newly impassioned Baldi repeatedly screams the song’s title. It’s a stunning introduction to the record, but “No Future/No Past” alone can’t fully prepare the listener for what comes ahead.
The second track, “Wasted Days”, is easily the best song on a record loaded with great ones. At almost nine minutes in length, it’s the kind of song that nobody ever expected this band to make, much less make well. I’m still thinking in a 2011 mindset, but if this track had been released last year, it would have been in my top 10 songs list at least. As they do on a number of the album’s tracks, Baldi’s vocals echo a young Rivers Cuomo, delivering an earworm melodic phrase one moment and a passionately desperate teenaged scream the next. Hearing his voice move so harshly between styles creates a manic energy that is no doubt supported by the guitar-led instrumentation. Throughout its lengthy duration, “Wasted Days” never lets go of this energy, bringing it to a head towards the very end, when Baldi’s double tracked vocals are simultaneously singing and screaming.
It’s hard to gauge the direct musical influences on Attack on Memory, but certain moments on the record are pretty illuminative. The anthemic “Stay Useless” recalls Cursive and Sunny Day Real Estate with its rough hewn guitar sound and self-deprecating lyrics. The lead guitar tone and general musical atmosphere of “No Sentiment” is practically a paean to Modest Mouse’s The Lonesome Crowded West. But the most interesting moments on the record are those in which Baldi’s old style seeps through the holes in Attack on Memory’s refined walls. The unpredictably catchy chorus of “Fall In” could have been adapted to fit in with tracks on Cloud Nothings like the repetitive “Heartbeat,” but it easily outshines its predecessor in terms of maturity. Similarly, the verses of “Separation” are structured in the same rigidly stuttering way as many of Baldi’s earlier songs, but its raw undercurrents can’t be found anywhere else in his discography. Songs like these suggest that Attack on Memory is not just a radical anomaly in the Cloud Nothings ouvre, but rather a huge first step in the evolution of a great band in the making. If this was the first album that 2012 graced my ears with, I can’t wait to see what it throws at me next.
Attack on Memory is out January 24th via Carpark Records.