Cloud Nothings, easily my favorite band of the decade thus far, are at a bit of musical crossroads.
Led by singer/songwriter Dylan Baldi’s idea that the essence of a song’s composition starts at its purest form, they’ve released three successful studio records built around not much more than insanely catchy guitar riffs and high energy anthemic choruses. Instrumentally, the formula has always been as grassroots rock as it gets: Just cranked up guitars, melodic bass lines and relentless snare-heavy drumming. You won’t find miles of pedal boards on stage with them or hear a whole lot of anything on record that they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, do live.
That’s not to say they haven’t already gone through stylistic changes, however. While their debut album, ‘Cloud Nothings’, was primarily a power pop album based on Baldi’s solo work, their second album ‘Attack On Memory’ featured a much darker, slower tone and was more of a collaborative songwriting effort with less reliance on pop riffs. They went into the studio with engineer Steve Albini, known for his hands-off approach that truly captures the essence of a band, and just played what came out. Their third release, ‘Here And Nowhere Else’, was a return to their pop roots but with a much bigger, louder sound. Through it all, they’ve maintained a very stripped-down sound that lets the songwriting do the talking and isn’t trying to impress with a lot of effects or over production.
However, bands often can only stay grounded in their ways for so long before they either feel the need to grow musically, or worse, get called out by critics for being a one-trick pony. So while the Cloud Nothings formula has worked well thus far, what direction would they go now? Would they stick to what they know and risk redundancy? Or would they venture into the world of studio production and polish that comes with being a successful band, only to lose their most loyal listeners.
Short answer, they did both.
Their fourth and latest album, Life Without Sound, lets you know right off the bat that this one is going to be a something a little different with its opening track, ‘Up To The Surface’. A toggling piano intro, rare on a Cloud Nothings song, merges side by side seamlessly a few seconds in with its familiar dirty guitar melody counterpart. A sign of things to come on the album, Baldi’s songwriting shows that his road-worn pop sensibility can coincide well with his new writing depth and direction. Tracks like ‘Internal World’ are the more straightforward rock comps we’re used to by now, while ‘Darkened Rings’ takes elements of what would be a predictable four chord wonder and uses discorded piano to fill in the gaps in a different way. And by the end, the closing track ‘Realize My Fate’ hearkens back to the boredom induced days of ‘Attack On Memory’ with a slow, building jam that results in Baldi stretching his vocal cords to their limits questioning what will happen next in life.
Cloud Nothings are doing a great job of covertly becoming a polished band with aspiring direction. Every time I hear a new release, I initially become skeptical that they won’t stray from the raw, emotional-yet-catchy sound that made me love them all these years. But after four albums, they still haven’t.