In evolutionary terms, the march of indie rock into the 21st century has been largely monkey-to-man; it’s rare that a young act with pop promise takes a hard left at ape and winds up on all fours, a lion instead. Our bands have been getting smarter and more sensitive, not cannier and crueler.
So what’s up with Cleveland’s Cloud Nothings? Like so many contenders before them, their melodic sweetness burns dimly beneath mounds of sour fuzz. One of those bands we’re always apologizing for (“Dude, it’s an aesthetic!”), who are always apologizing for us (“Dude, it’s all we had”). The bands who start out as No Age (abstract, feral) and grow up to be the Pains of Being Pure at Heart (linear, twee). Seldom does a prominent buzz band flash its grimy hooks, shine them up across a series of boutique releases and an LP debut, then bury them in our shoulders to drag us into hell. Wavves’ King of the Beach was surprising because it turned out that inveterate stoners could write pop songs. Cloud Nothings’ latest is surprising because we already knew that, and this little shit decided to stone us instead.
Attack on Memory opens with a brutal one-two sucker punch. Last year’s self-titled full-length, helmed almost entirely by frontman Dylan Baldi, closed with a bouncy ball of a punk-pop jammer, “All the Time,” cruddy guitars meddling in major-chord bliss, Baldi’s voice high and spry as he sang, “I say forget forever / I’m doing fine right now.” In 2012, a whole wrecking crew now behind him, Baldi offers “No Future/No Past,” an opening statement even bleaker than its name. Pensive keys and melancholic guitar build slowly over a methodical drumbeat. A distinctly In Utero anguish boils over into a crashing finish. The words “give up” seep from Baldi’s throat like a death rattle. And this is followed by nine minutes of “Wasted Days,” an upbeat and epic thrash through bummertown that recalls the nearly proggy punk-metal of early Trail of Dead. Here, what once was a one-man basement project becomes a full band to be reckoned with — twining guitar solos, visceral bass rips, snares, and cymbals — a live thing wrestling with itself on the floor of Steve Albini’s studio. It’s enough hi-fi brimstone to block out the sun.
So when the smoke clears and Baldi resurfaces on “Fall In” with a little Green Day snot on his tongue, the effect is relief. It’s both a breath of fresh air and confirmation that the 20-year-old still can do catchy, even if the tone and message have changed. Make no mistake, not once are we allowed to forget that at the base of all that pummel and scree lie the ashes of some failed relationship, and his angst plays like a perfect storm of grungy self-loathing and hopeless emo yearn. On “Cut You,” he sways between those two poles schizophrenically, growling like Kurt Cobain (“Can he be as mean as me? / Can he cut you in your sleep?”) before pining like a Get Up Kid (“Is he gonna work out? I need to know”). Like so few of his peers, Baldi uses his voice as an actual instrument, an emotional weapon that wreaks raspy havoc, even in the midst of Attack on Memory’s brightest song, “Stay Useless.”
Big feelings. Big guitars. Very big effect. Turns out Baldi’s aspirations for Cloud Nothings are familiar after all, but his pop dream is still rooted in the ’90s. He’s naked at the front of the classroom, but he’s unashamed. His heart’s on the floor, but who cares. Banged-up Fenders and trashed Peaveys circle his head like demons. The synthesizer is someone else’s nightmare.