Salim Nourallah has had his hand in a number of projects and genres over the years—alt-country, backing Old 97s frontman Rhett Miller; indie rock, working with the Deathray Davies on their last album; power pop, with his own band, Happiness Factor. Yet for a guy with such a memorable name (his folks were Syrian immigrants who moved to Texas in the 1970s, if you must know), Nourallah manages to fly below the radar (heck, most people missed his and his brother Faris’ 2001 band, and that outfit and album was named the Nourallah Brothers). Regardless of recognition (or lack thereof), Nourallah’s a busy guy. Yet for all his (excellent) genre- and band-hopping, the name he sounds most comfortable performing under is his own. In fact, on his second album, Beautiful Noise—a quiet singer / songwriter exploration of life, mortality and hope—Nourallah proves that he’s as capable of lyrical introspection as he is kicking out the jams.
Released in the dog days of summer (16 August, to be exact), Beautiful Noise is a decidedly autumnal record full of quiet moments—looking through a box brimming with photos of an ex-girlfriend (“The Apartment”), watching tears fall on a wedding band (“First Love”)—and Nourallah, to his songwriting credit, makes the personal sound universal. Beautiful Noise is an epic record dressed up as bedroom chamber pop.
To get a sense of the scale Nourallah’s working on, dig the album’s opening and closing lines (don’t worry, I’m not giving anything away): from the opening title track, “We start out in this life in paradise, / We only know the joy, / The beautiful noise”; and the closer, “Life in a Split Second”: “I promise at the end it can still be saved… / Don’t be afraid, / We’ll soon be safe”. Reassuring thoughts, Big Thoughts, and between those two notions are ten songs where the messiness of life happens. A father frets over his newborn baby (“The World Is Full of People Who Want to Hurt You”), love is forged (the gorgeous, upbeat “Montreal”), love is lost (“First Love”), people die (“Slowly Gently Softly”) and most horrifyingly, fate intervenes and a child is run over by a car (“No Guarantee”). It’s oversimplification, but Nourallah’s central thesis seems to be: “A lot of stuff goes down over the course of a life, but hang in there.”
It’s the second half of that phrase that elevates Beautiful Noise over countless albums that mine the same territory. After all, without that sense of hope, the lyrics on Beautiful Noise could double for those on a death metal album. I’m only half-kidding, but did I mention that one describes a distracted driver chatting on a cellphone running over a child getting off a school bus? Nourallah, like, say Jeff Tweedy (with whom he shares an uncanny vocal similarity) may get dark, but he is at heart an optimist: “Love is for heroes, / Hate is for fools”, he righteously notes on “Never Say Never”.
And speaking of Tweedy, as a point of reference, Beautiful Noise sounds a lot like the middle third of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot... minus the bleeps ‘n’ bloops and the weird “Yankee. Hotel. Foxtrot.” lady. There’s the spare pop arrangement of “The World Is Full of People…”; sweeping strings on “Never Say Never”; synths on “No Guarantee”, and a mini guitar-workout on “The Otherside”.
With Beautiful Noise, Nourallah has crafted a, uh, beautiful, mature pop record that isn’t afraid to tackle grown-up issues. In a culture where everyone is increasingly treated as if they were children, being told that everything is hunky dory, thank artists like Nourallah for standing up and reminding listeners that life is hard, but it’s still the most amazing gift that we will ever be given.