I really am going to keep it short this week. I’m still sick, believe it or not – my persistent cough just won’t go away, and I’m tired all the time – and I’ve rented five movies to help me catch up before Oscar time. I’m hoping to spend my weekend prone, unmoving, and resting the remainder of this vile disease out of my system.
Next week, I have a longer extravaganza planned – three albums that take wistful looks at the past. Some might say my regular Doctor Who reviews (which you will not find here this week) are wistful looks at the past themselves, and I’m trying to tie in Tom Baker’s final stories as the Doctor with the theme of romanticizing the past. I’ll let you know how it goes.
But this week, I have an album that does the opposite, one that stomps all over the past and would be very happy if you never mentioned it again. I’m talking about Nada Surf, that much-maligned and much-improved New York trio that infected radio waves with one of the most retarded hunks of crap to come out of the ‘90s. And I’m sure they’d be very happy if I just ignored it, but I can’t. You don’t write something like “Popular” and then get to disown it easily.
You remember “Popular.” Sure you do. It was an ironic list of ways to get ahead in high school: “If you want to catch the biggest fish in your pond, make sure to keep your hair spotless and clean. Wash it at least every two weeks…” I can still hear Matthew Caws delivering these platitudes in an oh-so-sarcastic monotone over feedback squalls right out of the Thurston Moore handbook, and the chorus – “I’m head of the class, I’m popular” – is seared into my brain like an itch that won’t go away.
“Popular” was on Nada Surf’s 1996 debut High/Low, and all by itself, it assured that I didn’t listen to that record for years. It wasn’t until I heard “80 Windows,” a song from the band’s underrated and ignored second album, The Proximity Effect, that I started to care if I ever heard another Nada Surf song again. “80 Windows” is no masterpiece, but it’s a finely crafted piece of guitar-pop, and it signaled the start of a serious upswing.
Here we are, 10 years later, and Nada Surf is still together, and still knocking out records. The big difference is, nowadays, they’re really good. Album four, 2005’s The Weight is a Gift, truly shone, thanks in part to the clean and meticulous production of Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla. But the album also sports a set of solid, thoroughly hummable pop songs, with not one dud track. To say this band has come a long way is to understate things by a considerable margin.
Nada Surf hasn’t exactly taken a Great Leap Forward with Lucky, their fifth record. But they’ve refined and perfected the style they’ve been working on, and the result is a catchy, quick, consistently enjoyable pop album, one that just begs to be played over and over again.
I dare you to listen to all five minutes of “See These Bones,” the opening track, and not come away a fan. The song starts simply enough, Caws’ clean guitar tones ringing out solo before the rest of the band slides a feather-bed of support beneath them. This song has such a wide-open heart, it’s unreal – it’s sung from the old to the young, but it’s no warning, it’s a soft acceptance of foibles and fate. And by the end, four different melodies are intertwining, spinning upwards to the sky. It’s just beautiful.
Nothing else here is quite as spectacular as “See These Bones,” but it’s all very good. The electric guitars come out for “Whose Authority,” a simple yet satisfying rocker that includes a cheeky Led Zeppelin quote, and they stay for power-pop gems like “I Like What You Say.” “Beautiful Beat” is catchier than whatever has made me sick this week, and the brief “Here Goes Something” is a minor delight. Through it all, the album remains upbeat, optimistic and embracing of life. For a band that could be bitter about its one-hit-wonder status, Nada Surf seems to be genuinely graceful, and grateful.
“Ice on the Wing” concludes with a brief horn fanfare, and it may as well be signaling the end of the album proper, since the last two songs are so different in tone. “The Fox” is a creeping, minor-key beast, the one sign on this record that everything might not come out all right. “If you don’t hold the rope, you’ll go alone,” Caws warns at the end, and it sounds like being marooned at sea. Lucky concludes with a cover of “The Film Did Not Go Round,” written by fellow New Yorker Greg Peterson, and it’s almost a nursery rhyme lullaby to sing you to sleep. (If, that is, you can ignore the specter of death that hangs over the song.)
Lucky is another lightweight, earnest and lovely effort from Nada Surf, a band that is its own story of redemption and persistence. The trio seems comfortable on Barsuk Records, far from the glare of their major-label days, and they’re producing richer work than they ever have. If you’d told me in 1996 that I’d one day not only be enjoying Nada Surf albums, but eagerly anticipating them, I’d have choked you with my regulation flannel shirt. But Lucky is yet another great little album from the band that (happily) didn’t go away when they were supposed to, and we’re (ahem) lucky to have it.
Bonus review! Chris Walla didn’t help out with Lucky, partially because he was busy with his own record, the recently released Field Manual. It’s the very definition of a vanity project – Walla can sing, but not very well, and he’s much better at backing up Ben Gibbard than trying to carry an entire album all by his lonesome. But his songs are sweetly played and full of rage and love.
Walla attacks the Bush administration a few times on Field Manual, but if you’re not reading along and looking for the political barbs, they’ll float right by you. His production is clean and dreamy, as always – the album opens with the three-part Walla harmony of “Two-Fifty,” as he sings, “All hail an imminent collapse,” but the song drifts by on a breeze.
“Everybody On” is my favorite, a plea to hang together amidst tough times. Walla’s chiming guitar work is at its best here, especially in the post-chorus instrumental breaks. Still, as the album’s best track, it’s nothing special, and the entire enterprise seems like something I’ll play only a few times. With Death Cab, Walla made my second-favorite album of 2006, Plans, and I’m excited to hear Narrow Stairs, their latest work (out May 13). Field Manual is nice, but not a patch on Walla’s main gig.
Okay, I’m headed to my couch to watch No End in Sight and Once. Next week, three backward-looking albums, and the last Tom Baker stories. And hopefully, 100% less coughing.
See you in line Tuesday morning.