When I first heard “Popular” back in 1996, I assumed, most likely as most of us did, that the band responsible was a one and done kind of group. The song was cheeky, clever, and catchy, though probably a bit too much so. But, Radiohead outlasted “Creep,” Weezer survived “The Sweater Song” and Beck hurdled “Loser.” And so, Nada Surf thrives today, basically delivering well-crafted pop since Elektra rejected their second album endeavor back in 1998. The band fell prey to the age-old record company b.s., namely, we don’t hear any singles, which is odd, considering that the states haven’t had a viable singles market for years. Furthering the oddity, The Proximity Effect, that second album, was successful in Europe, which does have a viable singles market. With their sixth album, Nada Surf has put into stark focus the dichotomy and balance of great songwriting and hit single capability.
If I Had a Hi-Fi is one of the most well crafted covers albums I’ve heard. Let’s just take this quick moment to look at the title. Folk aficionados will first notice a slight nod to the classic Pete Seeger song, “If I Had a Hammer,” but a further look reveals not only the wistful feeling of looking back at your record collection, but the fact that the title is a palindrome. Okay, the tripartite meaning of the title out of the way, we can move on to the actual songs that Nada Surf has chosen to play. For the most part, Hi-Fi consists of songs that may be obscure to most, but in the band’s capable hands, they expose each to be a potential single that they may not have been in their original incarnations (take that, major labels!).
Only “Enjoy the Silence” and possibly “Question” betray the usual trend of obscurity here. Otherwise, even tracks from well-known acts such as Kate Bush and Spoon are bonus tracks, b-sides or singles that never charted very high. There are several reasons why this album succeeds where other covers albums may falter. For one, each song chosen is a gem. The Go-Betweens’ “Love Goes On,” Bill Fox’s “Electrocution,” Mecromina’s “Evolución” and Arthur Russell’s “Janine” are just four examples of fantastic songs that deserve more attention, and may open up new worlds to some fans. Another reason this album is a winner is that, rather than trying to perform each song like a karaoke version, barely adapting the song to their own style, the band does indeed transform each track to become a Nada Surf song. Where other bands might fall into the trap to either perform “Enjoy the Silence” straight, or even imitate Failure’s fantastic version, Nada Surf provide a middle-period Cure-like take on it, and in doing so, put their own stamp on it. If I Had a Hi-Fi could have a two-fold reaction, exposing either fans of some of these classic obscurities to Nada Surf, or giving Nada Surf fans an illuminating window into some great, but possibly lesser known songs.
David Bowie – Pin-Ups
Nouvelle Vague – 3
Elvis Costello – Kojak Variety