The second full-length from Cleveland’s Cloud Nothings (not counting a collection of singles and various ephemera released in 2010 called Turning On) might not exactly be a front-and-centre release for the dregs of January, but it is hotly anticipated in some quarters. Canadian music radio personality Alan Cross placed Attack on Memory, said aforementioned sophomore album, on his most-looked-forward-to albums of early 2012 in a recent post on his blog. There’s likely a couple of big reasons for the slavish drooling for Attack on Memory from those indie music connoisseurs who chart new releases eagerly.
For one thing, the record is a lovingly nostalgic look back at ‘90s-style alternative rock filtered through the lens of ‘70s arena anthems. In fact, Cloud Nothings’ one-man frontman Dylan Baldi has gone on record as saying he pretty much listened to only stuff that came from before he was born – he’s 20 years old – while constructing his latest missive. Oh, and by the way, Attack on Memory was recorded and engineered by none other than that late ‘80s/early ‘90s studio wizard known as Steve Albini. (If that doesn’t whet your appetite for some backwards-looking musical geeky coolness to warm your winter ears, I don’t know what will.)
However, there should be another reason why one should approach the arrival of Attack on Memory with widely open arms: it’s a great album, regardless of genre. One that serves as a blueprint as to where Cloud Nothings signature sound is headed to next.
You see, Cloud Nothings was originally just your average, ordinary, run of the mill, lo-fi bedroom rock band. Things got cleaned up a little bit more for the first proper Cloud Nothings release – last year’s self-titled debut disc – and this album saw the “band” (the term is used loosely, seeing that it is essentially Baldi’s brainchild) moving away from its original aesthetic. However, with Attack on Memory, Baldi wanted an album that was more representative of the group’s live sound, which has been refined through touring.
Enter Albini. We all know that Steve Albini is a musician’s producer/engineer; he’ll give you what you want. If you want something punky and scuzzy, like Nirvana did with In Utero, he will set up about 30 microphones around the drum kit to give you a punchy wall of dissonant, heart-in-your-throat pounding. If you want something quite a bit more polished and varnished, as Bush did with Razorblade Suitcase, Albini will still give you an album that will still merit you comparisons to Nirvana while potentially getting you some radio airplay. However, in Cloud Nothings’ case, Albini has reached back to his days with the Pixies, and has helped Baldi and company create an album that sounds just a little bit like Surfer Rosa.
That’s not to say that Attack on Memory is a complete sound-a-like to a certain reformed Boston-area band of a certain age. The chimey guitars might rip a page out of the songbook of Joey Santiago, but there are times where Baldi’s nasal voice sounds, at times, like a dead ringer for the spaced-out stylings of Thom Yorke. Add in a dash of Slint-like post-rock and you’ve essentially got yourself a record. A somewhat derivative one, yes, but well-constructed and energetic at the same time.
That care in construction is evident on opening cut “No Future / No Past”, which starts out with a quaint and dainty piano line, but then the massive drums and guitars blow away any notions that you might be getting yourself into a Tori Amos album early on. Hearing the track is a little like watching a master potter at work. The song revolves around a repeated verse as more and more instruments are gradually introduced into the mix, before exploding into a molten frenzy of post rock angularity. What’s more, the following track, “Wasted Days”, delves even further into sonically adventurous territory, while keeping the hooks on the table.
The song is almost nine minutes long, and features an extended solo section that builds and builds to a malleable climax of cacophony. However, not a single second of that song feels overbearing or pretentious. In fact, it feels a little like Built to Spill’s “Goin’ Against Your Mind” in some regards in how the song is layered into a tightly controlled thrash where more instrumentation is gradually added in as the extended section progresses. The song is spiky and full of catchy angles, and this track in particular seems to be constructed in a way where it could go into all sorts of sprawling directions when it is played live.
The tendency to think about the live setting goes far beyond that song. Attack on Memory boasts an instrumental, “Separation”, that is utterly post-punk in execution. If Elvis Costello ever took speed and recorded a song without lyrics during his prime, “Separation” would be an indication as to how that might sound. However, the song also has a break that feels dug right out of the cadence of grunge rock with its atonal guitars and furious fury. It will stop the floor dead when the band plays this in front of people.
The album is full of plucked gems such as “Fall In” – which sounds a little like “fallin’” when Baldi sings it – a remotely cowpunkish number that is folded through the perspective of mid-period Modest Mouse. Hear the tune just a time or two and it is guaranteed to get stuck in your cranium like a bad case of sonic Ebola. The hard-edged “No Sentiment” is another highlight with its strung-out opening guitar line contrasted against some rough edged melodies that quickly enter and kick out the door.
In fact, of the eight songs presented on Attack on Memory, there’s not one misfire in the bunch. Granted, it could be argued that the record is a product of how a band wants to sound in front of people, as opposed to having a sort of logical flow from front to back, but, you know what? I don’t care. Attack on Memory is so fun, so reverential of its signature sound, and something that you can easily shake your head or a fist to, that you forgive any of its very slight shortfalls. In that regard, this long player (relatively speaking: it is only 33-and-a-half minutes long) seems to be more of a manifesto.
This is the sound of a band (relatively speaking: again, it is essentially Baldi and some hired players, though everyone reportedly contributed something to this album) more concerned with how their overall resonance attacks and forces any opponents into a corner with uppercut after uppercut. Hyper and frenzied, Attack on Memory has every right to be an anticipated early album of 2012. It’s great, catchy as hell, and bristling with retro rage and vitriol. What’s more, I’ll bet you any money that the songs contained within will sound even better when unleashed onto a concert stage. For that, Attack on Memory is an album that was well worth the wait.
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