There’s something undeniable about a good pop song. Cloud Nothings know how to write them. It may just be the lo-fi quality of the recording that, like a back-dated tintype photo, makes these songs seem classic, but even so, they work and they’re good. These quick and noisy pop songs continue in your head like melodies you’ve known forever and will always be singing.
Cloud Nothings is really one guy, Dylan Blandi, a 19 year-old from Cleveland (though he put together a band for touring). Last year, he released a home-recorded eight-song EP called Turning On followed by another EP and a split cassette. This year’s Turning On is a compilation of all of these releases on his new label home, Carpark. The original EP was so good on its own that I’m not sure this compilation is an improvement except in terms of completion. The addition of the newer songs disrupts the consistency of the sound and doesn’t make improvements.
The success of Cloud Nothings is an interesting mix of opposites: the best songs have a fast punk urgency that meets up with a lazy, laidback delivery, like if a pop punk band got stoned right before going on stage. The opening track, “Can’t Stay Awake”, is emblematic. Over a forward marching guitar riff, Blandi sings about being unable to stay awake. The verse is syncopated, like it’s falling down where it stands, but then the chorus continuously builds up to regain energy. The lo-fi fuzziness that washes over all the instruments, especially blending the guitars and vocals, adds to the hazy mellowness of the recording while also providing an edge. This may seem paradoxical, but Cloud Nothings finds a way to sound both edgy and calm at the same time.
The original closer of the Turning On EP, “Real Thing”, repeats the same fast-paced formula as “Can’t Stay Awake”. The riff is jerky, almost post-punk, except that it ties itself to an easy singalong chorus. Blandi often structures his songs so that the verse has an almost chant-like quality that vamps until the overwhelming payoff of the chorus takes over. “Hey Cool Kid”, one of the tracks that was floating around the Internet earlier this year, shifts this formula a bit. The verse has an interesting chant, but during the chorus the vocals and guitar break down rather than peaking with a consistently strumming noise. Being a one-man recording project of course admits imperfections, especially in time. Perhaps this is why the songs sometimes sound like they are falling off to sleep, but the looseness is excusable when the song writing is so tight. There are no extraneous parts.
The sound of the first eight songs is cohesive without being repetitive, which is a common problem with power-pop and punky lo-fi bands. Cloud Nothings often reveal a debt to ’50s and ’60s classic pop tunes, and these little retro tweaks are nice, but when they overtake the song it’s no good. This is the case on the first song to come after the original EP, “Strummin” — the weakest track on the album. The fuzzy mess that made the sound warm up to now is relegated to the vocals alone. This retroactively forces you to think that the lo-fi quality was only an added effect. When the guitars are clean and only the vocals are distorted, Blandi sounds like Julian Casablancas singing for Weezer. This is exactly what happens: the song ends with Blandi crooning his way through a refrain in a Strokesy manner, really compromising his sound.
Luckily, the sound of this one song is dropped for the remainder of the album. The next three songs, “My Little Raygun”, “I Am Rooftop”, and “Morgan”, return to the noisy mix of fun pop that worked well with the first eight tracks, with a slight tweak. Blandi now has a bit of a Jello Biafra ripple into his voice. The songs are silly; their infectious abstract pop brings to mind the punky pop of the Rezillos. The last song, “Another Man”, finally returns to the sound and song style that made the first eight tracks so good. It’s a good sendoff for the compilation since it reminds you what Cloud Nothings do so well.
The fact that Cloud Nothings wander around in their aesthetic over the course of these tracks suggests that Blandi is still searching for his voice. The problem is that he seemed to find it right away and the little differences aren’t improvements. What makes Cloud Nothings one of the best of the lo-fi pop bands around right now is the commitment to writing good pop songs and nothing else. Blandi’s version of this is more interesting than a band like Woods, who use falsetto and folk pretensions to try to disguise as different what is nothing but good pop music.
The band — i.e. Blandi — is young and started off just right. The danger Blandi runs is that he may find himself too enamored with his own songwriting and clever amalgamation of pop hooks (à la Weezer). It’s hard to capitalize on early promise. Although pop music allows for development, it is ultimately beholden to a simple form. Now, the question is whether Cloud Nothings will stick to a consistent and good sound for the full length expected to appear this winter.