During an early 2010 Nada Surf concert, singer/guitarist Matthew Caws attempted to explain the genesis of the group’s new covers album, If I Had a Hi-Fi. Caws regaled the sold-out audience with the tale of a band which sought to knock off something mindless after a year-long touring cycle and ended up crafting a record that’s more ambitious than their original studio albums by a half step. The extra hours in the studio have yielded one of the most informative and ornately produced covers albums in recent memory.
Like most successful covers projects, If I Had a Hi-Fi plays like a carefully constructed mix tape. Keeping in the DIY spirit of the project, most of the artists examined on this set are obscure enough to send even the most dedicated vinyl junkie scrambling to their local record store (or, you know, to iTunes). Household names and gimmicky Top 40 covers are eschewed in favor of material by unsung heroes like the late cellist Arthur Russell and Mice frontman Bill Fox. The Lemonheads, fellow alternative rock survivors, attempted a similar feat with 2009’s Varshons, another album undermined by the same lack of enthusiasm that has dogged everything Evan Dando has done for the last 15 years. In self-releasing an album for the first time in a decade, Nada Surf have clearly gone to great lengths to get this music in the hands of their friends and fans. They’ve even included handwritten lyrics for each song, along with information about its selection, in the liner notes.
As on previous Nada Surf albums, the musicianship here is of the highest caliber. Augmented by former Guided By Voices guitarist Doug Gillard and keyboardist Louie Lino, the band sounds as energetic as ever while they stare down some complicated material. A blissful cover of Bill Fox’s “Electrocution” serves as a perfect introduction to the collection. Nada Surf have a longstanding reputation as fine purveyors of power pop, and they predictably excel when attaching their own special know-how to Fox’s buried gem. Dwight Twilley’s “You Were So Warm” similarly sounds like the missing link between Big Star and Badfinger in Nada Surf’s capable hands. The band transforms the Go-Betweens’ horns and harmony-singed “Love Goes On!” into a relationship anthem, and they continue to take advantage of their respective boarding-school upbringings on their string-adorned, Spanish-sung cover of Mecromina’s “Evolution”.
Johnny Cash stills hold the title for the world’s greatest Depeche Mode cover, yet Nada Surf prove to be worthy challengers with a surprisingly effective revamp of “Enjoy the Silence”. The words and melody remain the same, yet the song is successfully reborn as a terse, insistent rocker. The Moody Blues’ “Question” gets a new set of wheels and a midsection that outduels the original in terms of grandiosity. The band also score with a chillingly spot-on cover of Kate Bush’s “Love and Anger”, thanks to Matthew Caws’ quietly devastating vocals. Despite the fact that band’s one true hit single (1996’s “Popular”) contained very little actual singing, Caws possesses one of the finest voices in indie rock. The proof is all over this record.
The highlight of the set comes courtesy of the band’s cathartic workup of Spoon’s 1999 single “The Agony of Laffitte”. Both bands did time on Elektra during the late 1990s and both were unceremoniously dropped from the label before taking similar slow-simmering paths to indie superstardom. On the track, Spoon frontman Britt Daniel calls out former A&R man Bob Laffitte and label chair Sylvia Rhone for mishandling the band’s career and then sending them packing without so much as an obscure Metallica EP as a parting gift. Nada Surf slip into Spoon’s shoes and cleverly co-opt a story that may as well be their own. The final twist of the tale is that Nada Surf’s version sounds more like Spoon than Spoon’s does, thanks to the aggressive bass playing of the vastly underrated Daniel Lorca.
Ultimately what places this covers album a notch higher than the rest is its unpretentiousness. Despite the use of strings and brass, plus other somewhat heavy-handed production choices, the band wisely manage to not overstep boundaries. Their tone is one of reverence, not competition. The band clearly relish the opportunity to be able to share this music with their fans, and they do so admirably. One can only hope that Nada Surf’s next stretch of downtime is so fruitful.