This January hype-blast seems unique to independent pop music. Unlike, say, the film industry, which famously uses the beginning of the year as a dumping ground, the music industry’s prepped for everyone who comes out of list-frenzy not gorged but whetted. I know, guys: from here, the year looks like a cornucopia of leaks scattering well into March, and it probably doesn’t matter that a lot of groups, like Cleveland’s Cloud Nothings, are woefully out-of-season, because we music listeners want ‘staying power.’ Right? Nice headphones double as earmuffs. Cloud Nothings will still be there for us when rolling down the windows is no longer deadly.
In 2009, 18-year-old Dylan Baldi released the short compilation of clearly homemade recordings Turning On, which received some good press when Carpark re-released it the following year. His group’s self-titled debut LP, you guessed it, sands off a lot of the rough edges. Warning bells, of course, but they’re Pavlovian — it sometimes looks like critics flat-out prefer tape scuzz on everything, but tape-scuzz happens to be tightly correlated with lots of other good stuff: exuberance, freedom, impulsiveness, immediacy, Truth. So, was the shoeshine worth it, Mr. Baldi? The nice thing about Cloud Nothings is that it makes these concerns feel like meaningless hand wringing; producer Chester Gwazda (who has worked with Dan Deacon) doesn’t overdo it. Sure, the guitars are homogenized into thick punk-revival idioms, but it turns out that when the group’s blowing through 11 songs in 28 minutes, some heartiness helps. It’s hard to overstate how fully “Forget You All the Time” is realized through its billowy production. The song’s basic propulsion echoes Turning On highlight “Hey Cool Kid,” except this time the group nails the start-stop dynamics. And those drums, the way they’re across the room and surrounded by space yet punch straight through where they need to — these guys knew exactly what they were gonna sound like when they got out of that basement.
With maybe one exception. The biggest surprise to emerge on Cloud Nothings is how Bardi has found his voice; you might wonder if it’s the same guy singing. Bardi’s mic-in-mouth slurmur-singing blent right in with the DIY setup on earlier material, but with these newfound nasal vocals pinpoint-precise and pushed to the front of the mix, he’s become a personality. Conveniently, he also sweats hooks: a nod to “You Still Believe In Me” wiggles out of the first track and is gone before you can say “Beach Boys”; the second track (same key, suite-esque) is hoarse and frenetic until it cracks into an uplifting outro; he stuffs little car-starting “ai-ai-ai”s in wherever possible. It all hits you at 78-rpm, and that these guys have the dexterity to recall the unadorned energy of 1977 punk is their greatest asset.
Bardi’s really not a developed lyricist, now that we’re paying attention (see the song titles). Repetition is his main ally. One song rattles, “I don’t have a heartbeat, why don’t you??/ I don’t have a heartbeat, why don’t you??” for half its duration and ends without explaining itself. Whether you get it or not, you’re liable to crack a smile at its tenacity. The album’s sidelong climax is “Been Through,” a trifecta of endless repetition, including such contagious woes as “Nothing’s working/ Nothing’s working” and, christ, “You’re getting older/ You’re getting older”. It cuts you up far more subversively than the minor-key “You’re Not That Good At Anything,” which sounds like a bid for variety on mostly-unified album.
My own twist on ‘haters gonna hate’ is, Yeah, of course anyone who loved Turning On isn’t going to want to see Cloud Nothings develop a sound of their own, especially one with this kind of commercial potential. The good news for those people is that more people are making basement music than ever before. But my sense is that most people who listened to early Cloud Nothings material really did hear something bubbling underneath their limitations, and the debut has all the springloaded force of a snake nut can. If this is their destination, they’ve arrived fully-formed, and past work will be reduced to an archivist’s “huh”; if they can find a way to make this album as non-sequitur as they’ve now made Turning On, they’ll be in it for a long haul we can all get behind.