Intense, surreal, remote, dynamic. Come along with us as we chronicle the adventures of the soul through psychedelic, drone, noise, experimental, pop music based around Chicago bands in particular and local bands everywhere.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Blankest Year: A Retrospective

Cleveland doesn't have a grid system. Since the Cuyahoga River splits the city, chances are that if you live on the west side, you will be unable to find a clear path to the east. Nevertheless, my wife and I trekked to the Ohio City RTA last night en route to the Beachland Ballroom. Nada Surf, a vital part of our music core and one of our greatest cultural points of agreement, were the main attraction at the Beachland, and we had our path all set.

Unfortunately, we took the #37 bus in the wrong direction from the east-side RTA terminal. Nevertheless, we quickly righted our path, captured another #37 headed in the proper direction, and found ourselves at the Beachland just in time to watch the stage set up for Nada Surf. Nearly two hours passed, and the destination-rock club standing in the middle of a desolate stretch underscored our journey, while the promise of Nada Surf ensured that we never felt truly lost.

Foundations, backbones, reference points are crucial to sustain life and identity. Over the years, I have come to realize that Nada Surf are perhaps my greatest cultural backbone -- this is the 17th year I have spent following them. They introduced me to the whimsical promise of pop song structures, ensuring me that weird, wonderful, and downright righteous sounds can commandeer the pop world. As they blissfully maintained their own world through studio album after studio album, they also served as my reference point back to the world of pop. No matter how strange my tastes became, I always had a backbone that advanced the world of power pop for each step I took.

When I was in middle school, "Popular" took the alternative buzzbin by storm. I even remember one of our scholastic "fun" readers discussing the song to teach irony alongside Shakespeare lessons at Milwaukee Public Schools. It was that back half of High/Low that truly turned me on to the extensive promise of power pop. The churning, dissonant moments of "Icebox," laid against understated, driving intensity of "Psychic Caramel" and "Hollywood," and serene build-up of "Zen Brain" stayed on my mind as much as my CD player. I even used "Icebox" to explain to my dad why I needed my first distortion pedal, a year-long guitar playing veteran at that point.

Restlessness and clarity are two themes that reach throughout Nada Surf's recorded output. At each point, there's a feeling that the whole operation might jump off the rails due to their sheer energy. Yet, the group maintain the type of clarity that only a soul in perpetual motion can produce. Without studio tricks, without psychedelic baggage, without grandiose concepts, Nada Surf take pieces of the world, bit by bit, and wrap it with their shimmering perspective.

I was born into the generation indoctrinated by pop radio dominated by the alternative buzzbin, a strange world of one-hit wonders and extremely odd hits that was hardly seen since the 50s and 60s. If most bands in the 1980s earnestly tried to replicate the sonic gems and structures of 1960s songs, the 1990s bands replicated the spirit of the "what's next" pop turns from the early-to-mid 1960s.

If this sheer power vacuum of rock and culture produced a lot of material to weed through, it also showed a generation the value of digging deep for pop gems. My first digging experience followed Lou Barlow's and John Davis's soundtrack for KIDS, and Folk Implosion's hit "Natural One" lead me to dig for records by Slint and seBADoh -- Spiderland and Harmacy were my first scores, thanks to car rides to Atomic Records. I had no idea then, but with Nada Surf and the alternative 1990s, the record collecting seed was planted in my brain. I certainly learned that if you dig, you will find unbelievable truths in culture.

1998 sure seemed like a rough year for Elektra. They had in their possession two of the greatest albums of the 1990s -- the robust, Acid Archives-worthy Head Trip in Every Key by Superdrag, and the sonic twists and turns of The Proximity Effect, Nada Surf's follow up to their major label debut. They somehow managed to see no hits in either LP, and the ensuing battles are part of 1990s major label history. Last night, as the band played lush versions of "80 Windows" -- filled out my additional guitarist Doug Gillard -- I smiled with joy, remembering those years I spent trying to track down a copy of The Proximity Effect once it was freed from major label control. That journey was certainly worthwhile, as the trio followed some of the dissonant, mellow, and expressive hints on High/Low to their logical conclusion.

Joy was there in heaps last night. My wife and I danced away to our favorites off LET GO, which was the soundtrack to our first year of dating. Nada Surf used their pop chops to capture those slight dissonant elements once again, producing a landmark album by one of the strongest 1990s bands to make it through the turn of the century. The trio's lush pop, both danceable and powerful, ran circles around the minimalist "rock-is-back" swagger of the early 2000s MTV-U bands. Nada Surf soundly proved that they emerged from that 1990s power vacuum unscathed and the strength of their musical interaction was that much better for all their battles.

Even as a switch flipped in my mind, and I rummaged deeper and deeper into psychedelic sounds over the years, the strength of Nada Surf's pop ability remained my backbone. At each step of the way, they were there to remind me of where I came from -- as I moved from 1990s LPs by The Dandy Warhols to The Velvet Underground, and deeper still, Nada Surf answered with The Weight is a Gift and Lucky, two studio albums that masterfully split the difference between their previous two LPs while advancing their sonic sensibilities and whimsical sense of humor.

This power came to a head in their rendition of "Paper Boats" last night, which the group sustained into a repetitive closing sequence that built textured-layer upon textured-layer over that song's haunting chord progression. Playing from that song's subdued pattern to its emotional kick-in, the repetition of that outro provided the opportunity to reflect on each of Nada Surf's strengths. I felt those ever-so-slight dissonant twists running alongside that singular unadorned emotional clarity that follows those restless patterns.

The whole sequence of "Paper Boats" reminded me of my favorite part of their latest studio LP, The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy. As "When I Was Young" turns from its spare acoustic opening to a slow-burning full band kick in, there's this magnificent synthesizer passage. This expansive synthesizer maintains the crescendo between the acoustic and full-band elements, until the kick-in cannot hold off any longer. It's probably my favorite pop moment of the year, a perfect example of how Nada Surf can procure these tiny little segments that are fantastical, slightly "off," or slightly out of structure, and seamlessly insert them into their songs.

And, "Here I am," Bo Diddley would say. I felt a certain joy last night that I have not felt in some time -- from being completely lost and aimlessly wandering in our temporary city to finding familiar faces and feelings through pop records. So much of what I love in each and every type of music I listen to is inherent in Nada Surf -- the strength of the story, the strength of emotional clarity, the strength of personal vision.

Matthew, Daniel, and Ira (and Doug) executed those musical elements perfectly last night, and the whole time, it seemed like they were playing for their lives. Following that emotional apex in "Paper Boats," they flat-out laid it on the line for each of the songs that closed their set, and their powerful, deep-cut favorites encore. And here laid the other side of their appeal -- the beautiful part about a strong foundation, a great backbone is that you have a fine opportunity to dance it all away.

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