It can be hard sometimes to judge an album objectively over the background ripple of critical applause. Ideally you’d like to judge everything on it’s own terms and merits but nothing takes place in a vacuum – no album is an island, as it were, and nor is a reviewer. Cloud Nothings have garnering a lot of plaudits over the past few years and to be honest that fact alone makes me happy, simply because Cloud Nothings are a Guitar Band. Captal G, capital B. I’m not sure what the current genre du jour is – the last time I popped my head up from my own personal bunker the prevailing trends seemed to mostly to involve unhealthy doses of reverb and the unfathomable continuation of an 80s fascination that has now lasted longer than the actual 80s. I’m the wrong guy to ask about such things I guess – as much as I’d like to think of myself as a pretty musically open minded kinda guy there are certain sounds that are just embedded deep in my soul – they just resonate with me naturally and make me predisposed to give them more time. You could call me ‘rockist’ if you’re the type of person who uses such terms. That might be fair to an extent. It’s just that one such sound is the humble old distorted guitar – there’s an itch in me for that sound that no electronica or hip-hop or modern classical or whatever can quite scratch.
Cloud Nothings didn’t start out as quite the same kind of capital letter guitar abusers as they are now – legend has it the band proper was initially hastily thrown together after singer/guitarist Dylan Baldi’s lo-fi project started getting attention. Since then they’ve evolved fiercely yet gradually – Baldi has managed to screech himself hoarse so many times he’s eroded away the irritatingly nasal voice he started out with, and despite losing a member between records he’s pieced together a formidable line-up. They now boast one hell of a potent rhythm section, one which is allowed a lot more room to excel on Here and Nowhere Else than on previous records – witness the frantic drums at the end of Psychic Trauma, or the bass run engine room at the heart of Giving Into Seeing. Though on first listen Here and Nowhere Else doesn’t sound like any kind of progression from Attack on Memory the drums in particular, courtesy of new sticksman Jayson Gerycz are pushed forward much more than they used to be, adding even more urgency to a barreling rock sound that wasn’t short on energy. Now it sounds like wherever it’s headed it can’t possibly get there fast enough. And now they sound like they’re doing it as a band rather than just a gussied up solo project.
When looking for comparisons for their sound Nirvana is the touchstone everyone seems to reach for with Cloud Nothings, and for once throwing the big N around isn’t just an act of journalistic laziness – Baldi undoubtedly possesses what they use to call during Cobain’s day ‘a pop sensibility’ that stands out in his songs no matter how much of a racket they’re making. There’s none of the arcness of Nirvana, the painfully self-aware in-your-face irony – their brand of emotional guitar rock is one identifiable by a tendency towards myopia and solipsism. The number of ‘I’s and ‘me’s on the lyric sheet would make even a young Trent Reznor blush. It’s so self-obsessed it can seem cruel (I can feel your pain/and I feel all right about it he sings on opener Now Hear In) and it’s occasionally a bit too precious and earnest, but it certainly feels honest. You get the feeling Baldi doesn’t mind if you think he’s a bit of an arsehole – he’d probably dig it if you found him as abrasive as the band’s sound. The trouble is, it’s not all that harsh or hard to like – there’s a poppiness that keeps on shining through. It’s that same tension that coloured Nirvana’s gazillion selling records. However beyond that they don’t really sound all that much like them – instead they fit neatly into that long lineage of emotional guys with six strings, fuzz pedals and no particular desire to be cool. From the likes of The Wipers, Husker Du and The Replacements in the 80s through to the similarly raw punk indebted rock sound the likes of Jawbreaker, Texas is the Reason, Braid et al had going for them around the millennium despite somehow being tagged ’emo.’ It’s a timeless sort of sound that gets shoehorned into whatever guitar movement is being pimped by the press at the time – there isn’t one at the minute, which explains why Cloud Nothing’s are getting that old new Nirvana thing now they’ve grown into their full band incarnation. It doesn’t matter – it wasn’t a new sound when half the bands they’re being compared to played it, all that matters is that they’re damn good at it.
What makes it quite so good is kinda hard to pinpoint. On first listen songs like Psychic Trauma and No Thoughts can just breeze by and just seem like 4 chord bludgeoners – the nuance of Baldi’s surprisingly dynamic guitar work and the high energy torrent of drums don’t seem to sink in until you’ve returned a couple of times. And the hooks – I missed them the first time around, and most of them the second – even at half an hour long the album seemed to have a lot of filler, but one or two lines and riffs would stick in my head and have me coming back. Then a few more. Before I knew it the whole album was lodged in my melon. It’s almost a kind of voodoo – the constituent elements may not seem like anything particular surprising or impressive at first, but after a few listens the songs you listened to only a day or so ago sound entirely changed. Suddenly the change of pace at the beginning of Psychic Trauma sounds perfect, essential, anything else would be ludicrous. The screaming at the end of Psychic Trauma sounding, well, traumatic, but entirely necessary.
And that’s probably it: it’s the sheer urgency and vitality of it. The addition of the new drummer has been like giving a world-class sprinter performance enhancing drugs, but this is still Baldi’s show, and despite basically peddling angst he manages to make it sound vital and life changing. Of course if I hadn’t hit 30 recently, if I were still in my late teens or early twenties, I’d probably declare that it *is* vital and it *is* life changing. Somewhere in me there’s a solipsistic, troubled early 20 something nodding appreciatively at the anxious, self-obsessed lyricism and itching to yell along with every word. At 30 I’m content to listen through the album and nod along, marvel at the drumming and be quietly impressed by the sense of urgency, the kind that comes from believing your own private nightmare is the most important thing in the world. Or at least I am up until I’m not Part of Me. The upside to such wanton solipsism is that whereas every little problem can feel like the worst catastrophe in history, each victory feels like an earth saving act of heroism. I’m Not Part of Me, a song that sounds like a glorious late night drunken epiphany feels. I guess as we grow older we learn to shrug off angst wherever possible, realising how small it really is in the grand scheme of things – but we also shrug off the small moments of triumph too, we don’t get to bask in the joy of those moments as much either. They just don’t feel as, well, momentous. I’m Not Part of Me, as well as being a perfect example of the oldest showman trick in business, leaving ’em wanting more and making them reach for the play button all over again, also has an infectious hopefulness to it. I’m learning how to be here and nowhere else Baldi sings, and of course that’s not quite a lesson you ever really get to learn – even on my best days it’s like a needle on a loose old FM tuner, swaying back and forth and only occasionally finding the signal of The Moment. But Baldi sings like he’s figured it all out It starts right now, there’s a way I was before/But I can’t recall how I was those days anymore. It’s cool, he’s over it, he’s moved on – everything starts anew from right now. And that’s the kicker to Cloud Nothing’s brand rock n’ roll: merely making such a riotous punk flecked rock sound quite so catchy and memorable is quite something, but they do more than that – they make the quiet little battles of youth sound like world wars, and above all, somehow make those emotionally turbulent moments sound like the most fun and exciting things in the world.