The Strafing Run: Direct Hit! A Review of Cloud Nothings//Attack On Memory

Well hello again, sweet dear reader. I hope you’ve been well since last we met.
Me? Oh, I’ve been fine. Drinking coffee, munchin’ on carrots, listening to great music, the usual.

What have I been listening to, you ask? Glad you asked. It’s this week’s column, and my first review for THE BOMBER JACKET: Cloud Nothings’ new album, Attack on Memory.

I’ve got a lot to say about this album. But to talk about Attack on Memory, I have to first talk about Radiohead’s, Ok Computer, and the band’s song “Creep.”

Folks, I am about to commit a great indie faux paus: admitting that I used to hate Radiohead. (I guess hate would be a strong word. I just didn’t like them much at all.)

I remember the first time I heard Radiohead. It was back when “Creep” was making its way around the world as the first big single from Pablo Honey. I hated it. It bored me out of my skull. It sounded like airy whining–no different than the majority of the other popular bands at the time. I didn’t think much of it, other than to write off Radiohead as just another random band trying to grasp onto a popular sound without adding much to music in general. (Mind you, my musical tastes were not as refined then as they are now. But even now, I find Pablo Honey and The Bends to be Radiohead’s weakest albums.)

Going back to The Bends now as a Radiohead fan, I can appreciate the composition, subtlety and beautiful darkness of the album. But when it came out, it just sounded like a more depressed version of “Creep,” and it seemed unworthy of my attention.

Then Radiohead released OK Computer and blew me away. I couldn’t believe how fucking good the album was, how different it felt than everything I’d heard from them before. The layered, intricate instrumentation fit perfectly over Thom Yorke’s emotional, vague, yet compelling lyrics. An album full of post-rock awesomeness unlike anything heard before, infusing electronic sounds and textures seemlessly into wild, powerful guitar work and lyrics that reached into the darkness of our collective souls. The first single I heard off the album was “Paranoid Android,” a journey of depression, with soothing melodies and angry riffs all jumbled together into a monster of a song. I had to listen to it about five times in a row before I believed it was actually Radiohead.

I went out and got the album, and fell in love hard and quick. I loved the album design and artwork. The songs spoke to me in a way like nothing else did that I was listening to at the time. “Karma Police” was so beautiful that it brought a tear to my eye more than once. Listening to “Subterranean Homesick Alien” was like floating on a trembling cloud of melody. “Exit Music (for a film)” is still one of the most haunting songs anyone’s ever made, with Yorke’s voice coming up from a dark, endless pit, accented with a minimalist soundscape that sounds as desolate the last days of mankind. In that one album, Radiohead changed in my eyes and ears. They went from being just another band grasping at the most popular sound of the day, to mighty dark wizards of a new beautiful sound I couldn’t get enough of.

Nowadays, with album after album of amazing music, Radiohead continues to be one of my favorite bands. In Rainbows is easily in my top five albums ever, and seeing Radiohead live was the most powerful show I’ve been to yet. Since Ok Computer, I’ve never looked back, and can barely remember the time when I didn’t like Radiohead at all.

As you may have already guessed, I feel the same way about Cloud Nothing’s new album, Attack on Memory. I’d heard Cloud Nothings before a few times, songs like “Hey Cool Kid,” “Should Have,” and “Forget You All The Time.” I didn’t hate them, in fact I thought they were okay. Nothing special, but mining the power-pop indie vein, with a lil more skill and flair than the average band, perhaps, but mostly unremarkable. Certainly nothing to write home about, or write a blog article about.

Dylan Baldi came up with the Cloud Nothings name as a bit of a Myspace joke. He’d make up cool-sounding band names, create a page for them on Myspace, and put up a few random songs he was working on. He didn’t even have a band for Cloud Nothings until he was asked to perform a show, and grabbed a bunch of friends to play. The first two albums were all Baldi, and while they definitely showed promise, they sounded pretty close to the rest of the punk-pop pack. So when I heard people talking early in the year about Cloud Nothings bringing back the “emo” sound, I was a little confused. I thought, Cloud Nothings? Emo? Since when is punk-pop considered emo? After that, I had a lil chip on my shoulder about Cloud Nothings, not yet understanding that the reviewers saying this stuff were talking not about the old Cloud Nothings sound, but about the band’s new work.

As soon as I heard Attack on Memory, I understood. The Cloud Nothings the world knew, was dead. Long live Cloud Nothings.

Just like Radiohead did over a decade ago, the members of Cloud Nothings have totally redefined themselves and their sound with one incredible new album. Deja vu. And from the reaction the band has been getting to its new album from critics and fans, it seems I’m not the only one who has noticed the dramatic improvement.

Before

The difference is remarkable. Compare “Hey Cool Kid,” the song many people knew as Cloud Nothings, to “Stay Useless,” the first single off Attack on Memory.

After

Hear the difference? Both are catchy, but “Stay Useless” blows “Hey Cool Kid” out of the water. “Stay Useless” captures a bouncy vibe with a sick hook, sounding at the same time both polished and raw. Easily the poppiest song on the new album, it still manages to fit into the rest of the album thanks to the early 90s riffs and similarity of theme. “Hey Cool Kid” has elements of the sound Cloud Nothings developed more fully in Attack On Memory, but it feels like a skeleton next to the more fully fleshed-out songs on the new album.

And believe me, this is definitely a full album. I’ve listened to it top to bottom many times. It fits together snugly–not as tightly as Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs–but that would be asking a lot. Attack On Memory can stand on its own next to The Suburbs or any other indie album released in the last decade, rewarding the listener with powerful hooks, stormy riffs and strong, concise lyrics sung with all the emotion Dylan Baldi can wrench from his slight, not-yet-old-enough-to-legally-drink frame.

Let’s start where the album starts. The slow burner that sets the tone for the entire album, “No Future/No Past.”

For a band that started as a joke, this is a serious, heavy song. A slow burn for a minute and a half, it doubles down instead of giving you the hook you’re waiting for. The suspense builds as Baldi’s voice matches perfectly with the bleak instrumentation. Around 2:30 in, it starts getting even sludgier, heavier. By 3:15 in, the song is swelling, getting too big to contain. Then at 3:40, the dam finally bursts, and the hook sledgehammers the listener into a goregous dark pit of the most compelling emo sound since the days of Slint and Drive Like Jehu. I can see why “No Future/No Past” was chosen as the first track. It establishes the themes of the album: disappointment and desolation, songs that build upon themselves patiently until they’re ready to rip, the feeling of hopelessness in the face of a cold future, the loss of what was good combined with the lack of care or planning for the future. A song and an album capturing the feeling of being young, intelligent and unamused in this Brave New World. Not suprising, seeing that Baldi is still only twenty.

“Wasted Days,” the second song on the album, also crushes. The track captures dissonant sounds crashing together into new melodies. The song is a sonic rollercoaster full of crashes and swells, waves of sonic sludge and noise punctuated by Baldi’s simple, direct lyrics: “I thought / I would / be more / than thiiiis.” The riffs on the song just pull you in like a 900 foot Kraken pulling down a tugboat. The song’s likely one of the highlights of a live Cloud Nothings show, and seems ripe to be stretched and twisted around in a live setting. It would be easy to call this the centerpiece of the album, but that would take too much away from the other great tracks. As powerful and emotional as this song is, it’s our next song that forms the hub the entire album revolves around.

No Sentiment,” moreso than any of the other songs on the album, wears the mark of 90s emo producer Steve Albini on its sleeve. Cloud Nothings could go back in time and open up a Drive Like Jehu show with this song, and no one would call the time cops on them. It captures that old school sound so well, it’s uncanny (I would love to hear David Pajo or Jeremy Enigk review this album…wonder if they’d be feeling it or not). You hear a lot of people throw around the word “emo,” using it to describe everything from Sunny Day Real Estate to Fall Out Boy. Me? I listen to this song and think “This right here? This is emo.” Call Wikipedia, the emo entry should have a direct link to this song.

The song itself speaks to being young in a country trying desperately to forget and undo all the great things its parents and grandparents accomplished, replacing them with an empty modernity and consumerism that the newest generation isn’t buying. Perhaps having an actual band and not having to do everything himself has enabled Baldi to put more work and thought into his lyrics. Short and sweet, catchy and meaningful, the lyrics tie the songs of Attack On Memory together as well as Albini’s production does. The lyrics stay succinct up until the last song on the album, “Cut You.”

“Cut You” enters into the continuum of great emo/indie “love songs,” joining Shellac’s “Prayer to God” and Drive Like Jehu’s “Super Unison” in the hallowed halls of sad, powerful songs about love and the lack thereof. The first verse grabs hold of the listener’s aching heart and serenades it with a sad melodic beauty. Baldi’s voice sounds its best here, fitting in so well with the Dinosaur Jr-sounding sad riffs and theme. Out of all the songs on the album, Baldi nails the vocals the hardest on this one. It’s also one of the only tracks he doesn’t go to full scream on, though he does give a perfect growl as he sings “Do you want to KILL him?” to the anonymous object of his interest. It’s a love song about loving pain, the codependence and combat we can convince ourselves is love. No other love song would really fit on this album quite like “Cut You.”

The rest of the songs on the album are also great–just a little less great than the ones I mentioned. “Fall in” has a marching vibe to start off, then turns into a classic indie rocker, catchy but not annoyingly so. The changes keep the song interesting, and it’s the “poppiest” song after “Stay Useless.” “Separation” is a sweet instrumental jam–a sort-of palette cleanser in the middle of the album I expect to hear expanded upon live. Not a track I’d pick out of the album to play on its own, but when listening to the full album I always let it play through. “Separation” is an example of the new Cloud Nothings full band sound; the whole band gets to rip and have fun. “Our Plans” is a great song overshadowed by its bigger brothers on the album. I really enjoy Baldi’s voice on this track, though the lyrics aren’t as strong as his best work. If I had to pick, I would call this the weakest track, even though a ton of bands would love to make a song this “bad.” Make no mistake, this is a good track. If this is the worst track on your album, then you’ve made a pretty awesome album.

Well dear reader, I hope you got something out of my review. Me, I got to listen to a great album over and over, to the point that it’s now stuck in my head like the image of Mel Gibson in a shower with Jodie Foster and a beaver, but better.

Speaking of that image, here’s a super-special-mega-bonus mini-review for you of a movie my friend Jesse made me watch. One of the finest films of 2011, Mel Gibson’s “The Beaver.”

Most assuredly, this is Mel Gibson’s finest work. When my friend Jesse pulled this off the shelf of the Schlow Library‘s DVD collection, I scoffed. Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster and a beaver puppet? C’mon now, you gotta be kidding me. This looks like a steaming pile of crap. But sometimes in a load of crap, you find a hundred dollar bill, or a diamond. This is a crap chalk full of diamonds.

Not since Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace have I seen such a great combat scene involving only 1 actor. Stunning. So why did Mel choose a Beaver and not a dog, cat, fish, etc.? We can’t really be sure. Perhaps he was immune to silly concerns, like the crude beaver-related jokes viewers may or may not quip to each other during his deadly serious film. In case you don’t get how serious it is, some examples: Kids put their heads through walls, children are tossed in dumpsters, and limbs are lost. Throw in a couple attempted suicides, lines like “you say the word, we’ll make the turd” and a man-woman-beaver three-way, and you’ve got yourself a hell of a movie. A movie so strange, you’ll be so full of questions for Mel and Jodie that you’ll forget about the whole drunken racist thingThe subplot gets a little tedious; the central premise is difficult to believe. But once you relax into the stupidity and buy in a little bit, a roomfull of folks can get quite a bit of enjoyment out of this film.

Believe me, you don’t have to be a fan of Mel to watch this. I’m not, and I thought it was great. You get to see him smack himself in the head with a variety of items, which is worth the price of admission for me. And if that isn’t enough, just wait for the inevitable Mel/Jodie/beaver sex scenes. Yes, it’s as awkward and odd as it sounds. (For any “furries” in my reading audience, put this one on your Christmas list, I guess.)

Well dear readers, that’s all I got. Remember to support great music, whether it be local or national. If Cloud Nothings comes to your town, do yourself a favor and go to the show.

Tune in next episode, when I’ll bring you a profile of a local State College musician, doing the musician-y stuff. See ya then.

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