jason kundrath listens to the latest from Nada Surf …
Longtime fans of Nada Surf harbor an unspoken fear: Eventually, the band is going to stumble and release a record of relatively mediocre material. The key word here is “relatively.” Considering that to date, they’ve put out five consecutive studio albums of distinctive and beloved power-pop, their average is arguably unparalleled. Henceforth, a “relatively mediocre” album has seemed highly likely — if not inevitable — for years.
Truly, singer-songwriter Matthew Caws is bound to run out of uniquely beautiful melodies. Surely, his well of poignant, clever and quotable lyrics will run dry. Undoubtedly, the core trio, unchanged since 1996, will run out of original ways to arrange these songs. But with their latest effort, The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy, Nada Surf defies the odds once again, not only delivering an album that stands shoulder to shoulder with their previous material, but also shines with a unique energy that could very well make it a fan favorite.
Across 10 tracks, the band is in top form, performing with a confidence befitting of their expert songcraft. Each tune is a gem and a welcome addition to their catalogue. This time around, however, the band is joined by second guitarist Doug Gillard (Cobra Verde, Guided By Voices), and his presence on these recordings seems to have infused the band with more punch than usual. The arrangements are still as carefully constructed as ever, but the band ignites every song with electric energy, brimming with a youthful (but refined) exuberance. To the point, album opener “Clear Eye Clouded Mind” wouldn’t sound out of place on the band’s 1996 debut High/Low, crashing out of the gate with buzzing guitars over a galloping beat. But this is not the Nada Surf of old. Whereas on their debut, Caws’ impressive guitarwork stood alone, on TSAITA, his tasty tones intertwine with Gillard’s punk-influenced technique, creating vibrant enveloping soundscapes for every track, layered with ear-catching detail.
“Waiting For Something” is a pop-rock firecracker that grooves with high-speed soul and features one of several killer guitar solos on the album. On its gorgeous bridge, Caws sings, “This new peace/I can feel it now,” and he makes you feel it, too.
Elsewhere, the band is in full shimmering folk-pop mode on the Byrds-esque “Jules And Jim.” The stunning “When I Was Young,” however, stands out as the album’s most epic and dynamic track. Beginning with quiet, acoustic arpeggios, Caws sings about new love and reminisces about the innocence of youth, before the bass drops in low and foreboding over a beat that builds to a dramatic stop. Then, the band suddenly kicks in loud but at a slower tempo to great effect. “When I was young/I didn’t know if I was better off asleep or up,” Caws sings. “Now I’m grown up/I wonder what was that world I was thinking of.” A string arrangement accentuates the bittersweet middle ground between nostalgia and longing.
At the end of the day, TSAITA is the sound of a seasoned, four-man pop-rock band making music with guitars. Nada Surf are not Radiohead, and to this point they have not been compelled to deconstruct and then redefine themselves. On the contrary, Nada Surf is more like the indie-rock equivalent of James Taylor — a distinctive, comforting voice and a familiar, beautiful style. Like him, they are more genre-defining than genre-defying. Caws continues to write songs that are simultaneously sad and soaring, hushed and hopeful, with simple, honest lyrics that speak to the heart. That is why their fans love them. Nada Surf are aware of their comfort zone, but they are not walking down the same old paths. Rather, they continue to blaze new and exciting trails — albeit in the same lush forest of a thousand pop possibilities.