Juliana Hatfield and Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws team up to deliver a solid album that sounds exactly like you think it does.
Juliana Hatfield and Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws are indie rock middleweights who have been around long enough to remember when their acts were called alternative rock. Hatfield has a long history of collaborations with other musicians, but Caws has pretty much stuck to Nada Surf over the past 20 years. Get There is their debut album as Minor Alps, and it sounds exactly like you’d probably expect. Hatfield and Caws have always played guitar-centric indie pop and rock, and these 11 songs play to their strengths.
This doesn’t mean that Get There is a bad or even boring album. There is a lot of strong material here, and Caws, at least, sounds way more engaged here than he did on 2012’s middlingly-received Nada Surf record The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy. The album’s opening pair of tracks feel like a paean to introverts. “Buried Plans” finds Caws lamenting “Such a loner / Hardly bring anyone over / I keep everything as quiet as I can,” over a simple acoustic guitar riff and a basic beat. It leaves plenty of space for Caws and Hatfield’s voices to harmonize and slide between each other prettily. “I Don’t Know What to do With My Hands” rides a tense, minor-key bassline in the verses as the duo sing in unison about a couple who are so nervous around each other that they enact the song's title. Mentions of knees “almost touching, but not quite” and a bridge that goes “I kind of want it to stay this way / No moves, no mistakes” perfectly capture the apprehension of shy people staying in on a date. A big, rocking sing along chorus is the cherry on top of the song.
But beyond that Minor Alps mostly keeps the guitars turned down. “Mixed Feelings” is the only other real rocker on the record. It works as a nice change of pace to the more delicate material, and at just two minutes and 25 seconds it doesn’t wear out its welcome or make it obvious that its guitar riff and simple chorus aren’t nearly as good as most of the songs on the album. “If I Wanted Trouble”, with its wide open, synth-assisted chorus, almost feels like an energetic rocker. But its quiet verses about the pleasures of getting older and not feeling the need to tear shit up show where the song’s real heart lies.
Caws makes a good impression with a pair of subdued songs anchored by compelling minor key acoustic riffs. Both “Maxon” and “Radio Static” recall the darker moments on Nada Surf’s career-reviving Let Go album. Nada Surf have struggled to recapture such moments in recent years, but these two tracks prove Caws still has that type of song in him. The warm sounding “Maxon” puts the focus on Caws' still excellent voice and is ably assisted by strings and a mellotron, and a great harmony from Hatfield on the refrain and later verses. The chillier “Radio Static” comes on the heels of “Mixed Feelings” and makes for a great stylistic contrast.
Get There closes with an interesting pair of songs. “Waiting for You” is a gently rambling, melancholy track that features the pair harmonizing over the entire length of the song. It’s the type of song that just feels like an album closer, so much so that it’s almost a surprise when another song, “Away Again”, starts up afterwards. But it turns out that “Away Again” is an outlier, a song that is driven by a skittering, latter-day Radiohead style drum machine beat, later joined by an actual snare drum accompaniment that takes its cues from the initial beat. The fact that a more typical indie-pop track is grafted on top of the beat doesn’t take away from its strangeness compared to the rest of the record. “Away Again” is also the only song on the album that features a lead solo vocal from Hatfield, so maybe there was nowhere else the song would’ve fit except at the end.
Despite not breaking any new ground, Get There is a perfectly enjoyable, though not flat-out great, album. Both Hatfield and Nada Surf fans will find plenty to like here, and there isn’t a bad song on the record. The collaboration seems to have Caws more engaged in the material than he has been lately with his main band, so that’s a positive, and the pair’s voices blend beautifully together. Even better, they seem to realize that, so the album is filled with a lot of great harmonizing. Maybe if Minor Alps becomes a going concern and not just a one-off, Hatfield and Caws can start pushing each other to do more than just stick to their typical songwriting styles.