Listen to the god damn drums. There’s a lot to like about Here And Nowhere Else, the new Cloud Nothings album: The snot-punk hooks, the scraped-out guitar textures, the overwhelming refusal to acknowledge any musical influences from anytime after, say, 1997. But those drums are the best thing about Here And Nowhere Else. Cloud Nothings drummer Jason Gerycz hits his drums like they just reminded him of everything that’s happened to every Cleveland professional sports team in the last 50 years, and he does it with serious speed and timing, at an absolutely relentless pace. The songs are good on their own, but Gerycz’s playing effectively straps a rocket to them. And as strong as the songs might be, I can’t think of a great rock album since Songs For The Deaf that would suffer this much if you took away the drummer and replaced him with some technically proficient schlub from the back of a Guitar Center. Gerycz’s playing has personality. He never sounds like he’s just waiting around for the chance to go apeshit while playing fills, but when he gets that chance, you need to get the fuck out of his way. This is exciting drumming, drumming with a sense of joy to it. And given that frontman Dylan Baldi never shows anything approaching joy, it’s a good thing he has Gerycz around to force his songs to sprint. Gerycz is the one element that takes what could be a self-pitying wallow and transforms it into a kickass rock album. And a kickass rock album is exactly what it is.
Baldi is not exactly new to kicking ass. Two years ago, he left behind the life of a psychedelic lo-fi garage-pop bedroom-recording guy to mine a deep vein of intense, frustrated, freewheeling sludge-rock, the type that used to pack terrible-smelling clubs back when Baldi was still learning how to walk. He and his band bunkered up with Steve Albini and knocked out the great Attack On Memory, an album full of the sort of cathartic whiplash scuzz that’s largely disappeared from the American underground since the internet came along and decreed that everything had to be so goddam pleasant all the time. Baldi is very much in Attack On Memory mode on Here And Nowhere Else, though he’s made some adjustments. The band has shed one guitarist, reverting to power-trio form. And along with that, they’ve lost some firepower, and they don’t play with quite the same deliberate, elemental force as they once did. Instead, they play faster and knock out catchier, more obnoxious singsong hooks. (Baldi, it’s suddenly evident, has owned at least a couple of Jawbreaker records in his life, and there could be a Blink-182 greatest-hits hidden in a shoebox somewhere.) The songs are, for the most part, shorter, more compact blurts of angst, and the album burns through its riffs in just over a half-hour. They’ve got a new producer, too: John Congleton, perhaps the greatest ornamenter on all of indie rock. Congleton has worked with his share of ass-kickers before, but he’s probably best-known for producing sweeping, mature, gently orchestral work for bands like the Walkmen and Okkervil River. And so it’s a testament to Cloud Nothings’ ferocity that Here And Nowhere Else makes a John Congleton production job sound like a Steve Albini production job.
In this Pitchfork feature, there’s an anecdote about the band wasting studio time by prank-calling a vocal coach who claims to give “the world’s best singing lessons.” Part of me wishes Baldi would quit pranking the guy and call him up in earnest to sign up for some instruction. Baldi’s voice is easily the band’s weakest point — a hoarse, deadpan husk that only really expresses anything when he brings it up to scream. (Even then, the thing it expresses is mostly just “I am currently screaming.”) But Baldi’s guitar sings like a bird — a terrifying bird of prey, maybe, but a bird nonetheless. Baldi’s guitar does most of the melodic heavy lifting on Here And Nowhere Else knocking out headlong riffs but then rushing into chaotic sun-flare solos and hurling itself against the furious current of that beyond-tight rhythm section. Baldi knows how to put together a song, and so every track on the album gradually ratchets up the intensity, building from straightforward riffage into raging, deeply satisfying climaxes. It’s a bit weird how he ends the album by following “Pattern Walks” — a song that spends seven minutes building to absolute bedlam — with first single “I’m Not A Part Of Me,” possibly the friendliest and most melodically sunny song Baldi has ever written. But even “I’m Not A Part Of Me” ends with a breakdown that builds into a tense whirlwind before breaking into a triumphant final chorus. It goes somewhere, and it earns that final loopy grin.
Mostly, I’m just excited that an album like this can exist, and be a big deal, at this late date. When old bastards like me were first learning about it, indie rock was understood to be, in some sense, an outgrowth of punk rock, and one that wasn’t too far removed from the genuine article. Back then, there was a sort of general trajectory: You’d move on to Unsane or the Supersuckers once you got bored of Pennywise or whatever, and then maybe you’d dig deeper and get into Blonde Redhead or Songs: Ohia or the Halo Benders. And maybe you’d keep listening to Pennywise even while you did that. I’m not saying that’s the right way to go about things, but I remember being genuinely shocked when I became a professional music critic and learned that a ton of my indie-rock-centric colleagues had never had a Bouncing Souls phase. Indie rock is a different animal now, and that’s generally a good thing; the underground wouldn’t have known to do with something like the War On Drugs Lost In The Dream in the ’90s — and that album is great, so that would’ve been a loss. But here we have a lovingly assembled, well-thought-out indie rock album that doesn’t sound exactly like ’90s basement-punk fare but does prize speed and muscle and disruption, and it makes all that sound vital, as opposed to simply calling back to an era when rock music needed to do stuff like that to sound vital. Because slash-and-burn guitar music like this can still sound great, and it’s nice to get a reminder of that potential every once in a while.
Other notable releases this week:
• Mac DeMarco’s woozy, relatively mature Salad Days.
• S. Carey’s ornate, orchestral folk-rocker Range Of Light.
• Pure X’s blurry, reverb-drenched Angel.
• Explosions In The Sky/Eluvium side project Inventions’ self-titled epic-ambient debut.
• White Hinterland’s R&B-fueled experiment Baby.
• Architecture In Helsinki’s bouncy, shamelessly poppy NOW + 4EVA.
• Saintseneca’s adventurous DIY folker Dark Arc.
• The Body’s sputtering, noisy, barely-metal Haxan Cloak collab I Shall Die Here.
• All-star trio Split Singles’ meat-and-potatoes debut Fragmented World.
• Smoke DZA’s overstuffed boom-bap odyssey Dream.ZONE.Achieve.
• RAC’s collab-heavy debut Strangers.
• Pyrrhon’s noise-damaged death metal attack The Mother Of Virtues.
• BOYFRNDZ’ frantically weird Breeder.
• Micachu & The Shapes leader Mica Levi’s score for the movie Under The Skin.
• The wide-release reissue of Hand Sand Hands’ hazy, expressive Lord Of Talk.
• Small Black’s Real People EP.