[17 March 2011]
Well, the inevitable happened. Cloud Nothings garnered a bunch of internet buzz last year due to the really wonderful lo-fi pop EP, Turning On—oh, and also due to the fact that “band” was really just 19-year-old Clevelandite Dylan Baldi recording himself in his parents’ basement. The buzz led him to put a touring band together, collect the original EP and some other singles on a somewhat lopsided extended extended player, also called Turning On, and go into a real life studio to record a proper debut for Carpark Records. Sure, there’s a lot of pressure. What made Baldi intriguing was that his song writing skill seemed to go beyond his age. However, this debut finds him making just the kind of album you would think a teenage kid would make. It’s good, but nothing special.
I wanted to like this album, too. It was one of my most anticipated records for this year. Baldi never committed himself to the dogma of lo-fi-dom; he was excited to make a “cleaner” sounding album. He had many options and made the interesting decision to record in Baltimore with the producer, Chester Gwazda, who has worked with Dan Deacon and Future Islands. But Cloud Nothings’ brand of sugary yet punky power pop doesn’t have the adventurousness you might expect from this Wham City connection. The resulting album is surely clean; the guitars even sparkle at times, and Baldi’s voice makes its nasally sweetness heard clearly in the mix. What this adds up to is nothing but a decent pop-punk album (inspiration circa 1991). The cutesy head bopping of “Nothing’s Wrong” just makes Baldi sound young and lightweight, a diet version of Cloud Nothings. I’d rather listen to an old Screeching Weasel album.
Last year, Ariel Pink made a successful jump from potential lo-fi genius to fully formed album-length greatness with Before Today. It wasn’t so much a production change as more consistent song writing that made this work. With Cloud Nothings, the songwriting isn’t really the issue. Each song on the album is arguably good, even if most of them start to blend together on repeated listens. The most overwhelmingly notable change is the speed of the songs. Turning On had a lazy haziness that was interesting and turned down the insistence of the power pop form, as if payoff could wait. Cloud Nothings, on the other hand, sounds rushed. You can imagine a teenager running through every song he knows as quickly as possible. And the album, with 11 tracks, only clocks in at about 28 minutes and change..
The real problem is that this album seems to have polished away all the bumps that really provided the best part of Baldi’s sound. Power pop is a hard genre since it’s so formulaic. To stand out, you’ve got to be really damn good. Baldi has the chops, but they don’t show up on this record. One suspicion I have is that he has clung to the one-man band approach. He may have worked these songs out with other musicians on tour, but in the studio, it was still just him. The rushed feel to this quick, short set of songs speaks to me of a failure of collaboration. With hubris from his success, Baldi was so sure of what needed to be done—so he just went ahead and did it by himself. But this ends up sinking by sounding workmanlike.
It’s been too short a time since Cloud Nothings broke out to ask for any maturity—and really that’s not what you particularly want in a pop group. It seems, however, that Baldi is trying for that. The lyrics bespeak a self-conscious teenager trying to be adult: the worst line for my money is “I am understanding/but I can’t believe what you’ve been through” on the aptly named “Been Through”. Baldi is playing that sensitive guy card without a bit of irony. In that vein, the intricate melodic guitar parts (that merely add up to simple punk chord changes) call back to mind the weaving emo axe masters from the close of the millennium.
Despite all of these hallmarks of “feeling”, this album ends up sounding empty. There’s no thickness, no heft to the sound. Cleaned up, Baldi sounds thin and nasally. The crystalline guitars never push into the red (except on the buried afterthought of a guitar solo on “You’re Not That Good At Anything”, which is also one of the few songs, along with “Not Important”, where Baldi seems to have any teenage angst). The highlight of the album comes only with the last song, “All the Time”, where it sounds like Baldi tries to catch his breath at last. The song could have been on the earlier EP, but it actually uses the studio space to its benefit by allowing for some texture: one part consists of just guitar and voice (too bad it’s still too thin). I don’t want to say that the lo-fi of Cloud Nothings’ good recordings must have hidden the weak spots of the band, but it’s hard not to feel that somehow this precocious songwriter has regressed. Or else, he’s just gotten better at manufacturing pop songs (sans feeling) and delivering them in no time at all.