Here’s why first impressions are sometimes not a good thing. Let’s start with the name. Nada Surf with its Spanglish allusion to California culture always sounded to me like a possible name for a release by Frank Black. Then you have the fact that the band is most remembered for their first big hit single, “Popular,” released at a time when Weezer was the biggest thing on MTV, and even produced by Rivers’ guru, Ric Ocasek. So, with a slight reference to the Pixies and a hit single under their belts, why is that a bad thing? Frankly, because Nada Surf have continued to progress and with this year’s album release, The Weight is a Gift, have far surpassed those meager first impressions.
First track “Concrete Bed” turns a simple thought into practical advice that could save a lot of people from bad relationships. “To find someone you love / Gotta be someone you love.” “Do it Again,” which features the album’s title in the lyrics (“Maybe this weight was a gift / Like I had to see what I could lift“), has a literal pulse, driving you on to the song’s high energy melodic finish with background vocals worthy of a Beach Boys tune. That and “Always Love” were most likely songs that Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, who is coincidentally the producer of this record, contemplated nicking for their own CD. Matthew Caws’ elementary and terse lyrics are a thing of beauty coming out of his earnest voice.
The real treasures on The Weight is a Gift are the ballads, specifically “Your Legs Grow.” Instead of the Thompson Twins’ song opening lines, “If you were here, I could deceive you,” Caws puts his own spin on the lyrics with “If you were here, baby we’d increase the dose.” Another personal favorite is “All is a Game” with its rising pitch of harmonies and its similarities to songs from The Photo Album. “Blankest Year” shows that the band still has the sense of humor evident with their big hit single as it starts out, “Oh, fuck it! I’m gonna have a party!” “Comes a Time” is the second ballad and just as beautiful as the first.
I misheard the lyrics the first time I listened to “In the Mirror.” Caws sings, “I look in the mirror to see what my hair is doing / Is it kind of Skywalker or is kind of stupid?.” Instead of Skywalker, I heard Scott Walker, which would have been more of an obscure reference, but it worked either way. The song also has some of the album’s most thoughtful and heartbreaking words in “But do dreams ever do damage to life? / When you need so much you can’t get it right?” Closer “Imaginary Friends” is a shout out to title characters as those close to the narrator have betrayed him. It is a fitting close to an album which makes beauty out of sadness.
Arguments could be made that instead of aping Weezer, Nada Surf are now, under the guidance of Chris Walla, mimicking the Northwest sound of bands like Rogue Wave, Death Cab for Cutie, the Shins and even the Posies. Honestly, this argument is poop. While there are definite echoes of those bands, Matthew Caws has written songs which are truly unique. Self-reflection, self-analyzation, and making gold out of straw is the name of the game on The Weight is a Gift. What this is is a band who has finally found where they fit, what kind of music they want to play, and how they want it presented. This New York band has found its home with a Seattle label, a Seattle producer, and a Northwestern sound while remaining true to their songwriting strengths and sensibilities.