By Robert Christgau
Special to MSN Music
As is fast becoming legend, the Cloud Nothings began with 17-year-old Wake Forest dropout-in-waiting Dylan Baldi recording punky lo-fi ditties in his parents' Cleveland basement in 2009.
Soon followed the 2010 oddment collection "Turning On" and then 2011's catchier, higher-fi album-as-album "Cloud Nothings," all instruments by Baldi even though he'd been playing out with the three other guys on the "Turning On" gatefold. And now a year later comes the Steve Albini-produced "Attack on Memory" and suddenly the indie world is agog. It's the hot surprise of the spring.
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Having watched young bands age since the first punk era, I have trouble hearing album three as a great leap forward. To me, Baldi sounds like a 17-year-old at 17 and a 20-year-old at 20.
Anyway, album two was a leap as well. Its better-developed songs and sound
got Baldi on the road, which taught him what happens when a band graduates to
working unit from basement concept.
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Performing his material live revealed how he wanted it to sound and convinced
him to let his bandmates in on the next round of writing. Soon Albini was
getting the drum sound right and letting the rest of the music rip. Of the eight
tracks, only the second, the nine-minute "Wasted Days," is over five minutes,
and only two others are over four. But one of them is the 4:41 opener, "No
Future/No Past," which together with "Wasted Days" was enough to convince
ADD-addicted netcrits that these tyros were a "rock" band now.
A fan of "Attack on Memory" as a 20-year-old cri de coeur, I grabbed the chance to catch the Cloud Nothings at Manhattan's sold-out little Mercury Lounge on March 27. They looked like a slightly older version of the "Turning On" quartet, with Baldi's black-rimmed glasses and drummer Jayson Gerycz's shoulder-length hair their only identifying visual characteristics.
And when they opened by cheerfully blistering through "Attack on Memory"'s two catchiest songs, I felt transported into that rare yet perpetually renewable state of grace in which some new bunch of unlikely kids reinvents punk -- the speedy tempo embodying their ebullience, the chords cycling with an inevitability under their newfound control, the inevitability adding confidence to whatever overexcited screech or whine they call a voice. Baldi's boys were locked in from the first refrain of "Stay Useless" and on a roll by the chorus of "Fall In." "I used to have it all," he complained. But now he had something better. He knew it, and he knew we knew it.
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Yet before "Fall In" was over something major changed: The guitars wouldn't stop, and bassist TJ Duke's counterlines broke out over their roar for 12 or 16 bars. Over the next 35 minutes the Cloud Nothings played every one of "Attack on Memory"'s six remaining songs, but although I have a setlist, I'd be lying if I claimed I could always tell one from the other -- they'd used up their best hooks already, and tunes and vocals were no longer the focal point.
Several times, in fact, drummer Gerycz became the focal point, not by taking
a solo but simply by accelerating into a rivetingly articulate racket -- he
may well be the band's most gifted musician. And on what I believe was
"Separation," guitarists Baldi and Joe Boyer extricated themselves from the
thrash to explore what sounded like Sonic Youth tunings. Later still, their
interactions were more Pavement in feel.
Toward the end I began to suspect Baldi was blowing out his voice, and it occurred to me that this might be the perfect time to show off his tuneful lyricism. But only the closing "No Future/No Past" gestured in that direction, and roughly at that. The encore -- three older songs that had gained palpable assurance and finish -- was quieter.
But by then my skepticism about calling them a "rock" band had long since
been demolished. If they want that dubious honorific, they're earning it --
more Pavement than Nirvana (not to mention Stooges, or Lynyrd Skynyrd), with force to burn
but no discernible steamroller or sledgehammer tendencies. Punks are nerds in
disguise -- we've figured that out -- so credit the Cloud Nothings with
being confident enough in their nerdiness not to make a spectacle out of
The very best bands keep building on their moments of grace. But we who've watched hundreds of young ones age know such moments have a way of getting tired. So just in case, catch Cloud Nothings while they're touring like crazy, as they certainly deserve to. Bring your earplugs if you want.
Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.