Sometime in the latter half of the ’00s indie rock began to run a deficit in the taut, aggressive yet melodic style of post-hardcore that made much of the ’90s such a renaissance for alternately graceful and dissonant six-string sounds. And given the noisy lo-fi pop of their first two records, I probably wouldn’t have guessed that Cleveland’s Cloud Nothings would adopt the scratchy guitar jabs of Shellac or the noisily catchy punch of Jawbox. The band’s 2011 self-titled album boasted concise, peppy tunes with lot more in common with the likes of Wavves or Best Coast, certainly enjoyable, but without much in the way of visceral intensity or throat-ripping emotion.
It probably doesn’t hurt, then, that in order to help capture the right sonic atmosphere on second album Attack On Memory, Cloud Nothings enlisted the aid of Steve Albini. Frontman Dylan Baldi candidly described Albini’s approach as pretty hands off, noting that the notoriously surly Shellac/Big Black frontman spent much of his time playing online Scrabble. Yet Albini, regardless, left his mark, capturing the band with a raw, analog sound that pops with each guitar chime and each snare drum snap, a sound that has remained an Electrical Audio staple from Surfer Rosa to In Utero.
Where once Cloud Nothings’ prior material consisted primarily of Baldi’s solo home recordings, Attack On Memory marks a pivotal point in the group’s progression, sounding for the first time like a tight group of live musicians in the same room, a gloriously sharp-edged sound that suits the band nicely. This taut dynamic results in some dramatically more adventurous material for the band, the most notable examples of which occur right at the front of the album. Leadoff track “No Future/No Past” is a tense slow burner, trudging like the sinister post-rock of Slint before ultimately exploding into a harsh climax of distortion and Baldi’s shredding vocals. Alternately, “Wasted Days” moves at twice the speed and spans nearly twice the length, ending just shy of the nine-minute mark. It begins as a direct, blistering punk rocker before dabbling in a noisy jam session, ultimately ending where it began, a sort of encore performance of its undeniable hooks.
Though they’ve advanced impressively in terms of musicianship and songwriting, Cloud Nothings nonetheless maintain an exuberant and angst-ridden youthfulness, which stands in contrast to genre pioneers like Albini, who sort of always sounded like indie rock’s grumpy next-door neighbor. The harmonized vocals on standout “Fall In” rekindle some of their past glories but in a tighter, heavier hitting form. And Baldi, having experienced only the front end of his twenties, has a vocal screech that recalls Jeremy Enigk circa Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary, uttering self-doubting lines like “I want to be like you/ tell me what I should do.” One track later, on the similarly immediate “Stay Useless,” Baldi returns to the chorus refrain, “I need time to stop moving/ I need time to stay useless.” Though the words sometimes seem mired in youthful uncertainty and, at times, snot-nosed defiance, their meaning isn’t always important. His ripped larynx seems to speak loud enough on its own.
Baldi stated after recording Attack on Memory that his first album didn’t really sound like music he actually listened to, and with this new set, the band’s aim was to fix that. The record Cloud Nothings recorded more than updates the band’s sound, it displays a greater sense of confidence and impeccable taste. Attack On Memory is not only a great leap forward for the band, but an acknowledgement of sound instincts.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.