Poor Rock music fans: As the reach and imagination of both hip-hop and electronica have expanded, they've suffered through a decade of beloved indie rock that's worked very hard to create new ways to stop just short of, you know, rocking.
The more experimental edge flirted with disco beats and R&B surrender; those with mainstream aspirations skewed older, becoming tastefully boring. At last, '80s fetishism in indie rock has somewhat given way to '90s worship. But guitar-based underground rock has been loud and flannel-patterned for a few years now. There's been no substantive popular revival, no matter how much kids like Dylan Baldi scream.
Baldi is the anchor of Cleveland's Cloud Nothings, a band working to rebroadcast uptempo indie rock. Cloud Nothings arrived in 2009 with Turning On, an underdone and unremarkable statement from a teenager with GarageBand and some refrains. But a second, self-titled record suggested a quickly developing talent, capable of writing hooks. Over time, however, even the stickiest bits proved less than memorable.
Cloud Nothings' real breakout required the most heavily quoted verse in the Gospel of Alt-Rock—enlisting producer Steve Albini to make a darker, rawer record. Though all parties insist Albini had little to do with actively reshaping Cloud Nothings' sound, Attack on Memory could pass for the work of a completely different band. In fact, it was the first time they were a real band at all, and not just Baldi's bedroom experiment. Given a road-tested gang, time in a studio and the help of a guy who knows how to use one, Baldi's quantum leap seemed predestined.
With or without Albini, Baldi had gotten better at building songs. "No Future/No Past" showcased a bruised, brooding quality never before apparent in Baldi's output. "Wasted Days" worked through enough weird textures to sustain eight-and-a-half minutes without wearing thin. The record couldn't follow those first two songs, but the remainder wonderfully kicked in the fine lines between punk, grunge, power-pop and emo.
Could the next Cloud Nothings' record be an equally evolutionary step? Not really.
Here and Somewhere Else is the full band's second studio record. John Congleton, another formidable producer, guided these sessions, but personnel changes again prove to be more important. Between records, the band gained drummer Jayson Gerycz and lost guitarist Joe Boyer. Without Boyer, Baldi handles the guitars, which increase in speed and density but decrease in intrigue. A conversation between two instrumental voices becomes, instead, only emphatic shouts in unison. Gerycz bludgeons the drums constantly, maybe too much. The songs are urgent in bits, numbing in aggregate. They're forever stuck on a supposed full rip that never actually crosses into danger.
The long, wandering "Pattern Walks" offers a welcome curiosity. For six minutes, Baldi cycles through strident melodies, discarding them as they burn out. There's room for more dynamics, gaps when the drums drop out long enough to build excitement for their return. The vocals get trippy, folding in on themselves without stopping to reflect. The rest of the album simply feels like a better crystallization of material best described as "Warped Tour Plus." If "Pattern Walks" is indulgent, Cloud Nothings should continue to allow themselves the treat.
The biggest problem with the record's consistent concision stems from the lack of verve in Baldi's repeated mantras. "I don't really care about the lyrics, " he insisted in a recent Vice interview. That's too bad. Structurally, he's a hook-writing natural, but the sound and fury of Cloud Nothings doesn't say very much. He goes for Cobain-like throat-shreds, repeating "swallow" in "Giving Into Everything." But the context is lacking. The doomed, visceral poetry of Nirvana is well beyond Baldi. He can't quite summon the juvenile memorability of early Green Day, either. A generically snotty earworm like "I feel your pain and I feel alright about it" repeats in your head without actually activating any thought.
In a rave review of Here and Somewhere Else for Pitchfork, Ian Cohen attempts to position their blunt moping as a counterintuitive virtue: "They siphon punk's righteous physicality and leave self-righteousness, victimization and nihilism as the subject matter of the privileged," he writes. Indeed, Cloud Nothings now seem to be a drum-thwacking juggernaut, barreling ceaselessly from the speakers, a holy finger pressed on some celestial "!" key. You can argue that their exertion is enough and, shoot, it probably is.
But it takes a long intellectual leap to turn empty energy into a nourishing philosophy. The appeal of Cloud Nothings at this point is pretty clear and pretty limited, collapsing on a level that falls a few steps short of "future saviors of rock 'n' roll." They take a sad song and simply make it pogo.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hollow rock"