“Attack On Memory”
Steve Albini is the Greg Popovich of music (or vice versa). This comparison goes beyond the obvious fact that they are both curmudgeons whose impenitent honesty has been known to ruffle feathers over the years. While both have been hugely successful, they both enjoy downplaying their impact. Albini has been known to insult the bands involved with some of his best work as a producer. He said the only reason he worked with Nirvana on “In Utero” was for the money, and he once called his work on “Surfer Rosa” with The Pixies ”a patchwork pinch loaf from a band who at their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock”). Popovich isn’t one to mince words either, victimizing the people who have helped seal his place in basketball history: the media, the league, and his players (he’s quoted as once saying of his best player “Tim Duncan doesn’t have to say much. I haven’t liked him for a long time”).
But what truly ties these men together is not their venomous assault on anything and everything – it’s their ability to take the one-dimensional and make it multi-faceted. Popovich has been successful at this for years, making defensive players offensive threats (Bruce Bowen), picking players late in the draft that others have ignored and helping them become all-stars (Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker), or culling players from the depths of the D-League/CBA and making them productive cogs within his basketball machine (Jaren Jackson, Gary Neal). Albini has worked much in the same manner, helping bands refine their sound and then blow it up with distortion. Despite both entering the second half of their life, they continue dominating their field. Popovich’s Spurs are currently 3rd in the Western Conference with an aging Tim Duncan and a sidelined Manu Ginobili, and Steve Albini’s fingerprints are deeply pressed into every nook and cranny on his latest work with Cloud Nothings.
A year ago today, I was all in with Cloud Nothings, a music project created by Dylan Baldi, a college student in Cleveland who started making songs in his parent’s basement as a hobby. He first started releasing his songs online and soon picked up buzz for catchy tunes like “Hey Cool Kid” and “Leave You Forever.” I bought both of his first homebrewed albums and loved the simplicity, the intimacy, and most importantly, the melodies. Then, of course, came his first formal album, a self-titled affair that left me questioning whether he should have ever left the confines of his parent’s storm shelter. The album was the opposite of everything I loved about his early releases, glazed in a sheen and stripped of any sense of spontaneity. Not even his penchant for great choruses had survived the big move up. After seeing Cloud Nothings play an uninspired set at SXSW, I figured I was done with them.
Then along came Steve Albini. Just like Popovich taking Bruce Bowen and making him the centerpiece to the Spur’s multiple-championship winning defense, Albini picked up Baldi and his band by their boot-straps and shook them like a child does when trying to wake his dead hamster. And suddenly, there was life within this fading band once again.
I can just imagine Albini slapping Baldi on the face and yelling something along the lines of “If you’re going to whine, be angry about it!” because that’s just what they’ve done. Like Fonzie making the transition from a nonspeaking part on “Happy Days” to becoming the king of attitude, Baldi has made an about-face. His attitude boils-over within each track, no longer a wallflower, but now a weed-wacker taking aim at any petunia in his garden of sorrow.
When I heard the opening piano on the first track “No Future/No Past,” I honestly wondered if I had mistakenly purchased an album by another band named Cloud Nothings. It was too brooding and too atmospheric to be anything concocted from the mind of Baldi. But then, 30-seconds in, the tortured voice of Baldi mumbles over a plodding melody fit for a Slint song. In the past, Cloud Nothings were a band of instant gratification, jumping straight into the upbeat celebration, but no longer. “No Future/No Past” is a slow burner, constantly building up the furor into one enormous, torturous explosion of anguish. In that moment, the only words that could come to mind were, “Damn you Albini; you’ve done it again.”
Cloud Nothings obviously have a future with a track like “No Future/No Past”:
From there, all bets are off. The anger continues on “Wasted Days,” but the upbeat tempo of former Cloud Nothing songs has returned. What didn’t return, fortunately, is the Cracker Jack production sound from the first few albums. As much as I loved the quaintness of Baldi’s basement, the atmosphere outside his door is so much more interesting. And even if you do feel like the band has returned to its past with “Wasted Days,” the song flips an unexpected turn, two-minutes in, taking a song that would usually end right there, and extending it for another seven minutes of jam-band-madness. The jam-band mentality continues throughout the album, especially on the unexpected “Separation,” a song completely devoid of vocals. These two songs alone have me anticipating their live show once again. When I saw them a year ago, they sped through one two-minute song after another without much in the way of passion; these songs allow them a chance to have some fun on stage.
The nine minutes on “Wasted Days” is not a waste of your time, that is for sure:
Albini understood he couldn’t erase all that gained Cloud Nothings so much notoriety early on, and this is evident on songs like “Fall In,” “Stay Useless,” and “Our Plans.” Each of these songs could easily find a place amongst those on prior albums, but even on these nods to the past, the sound of the songs burst out the speaker instead of hiding behind a fog of tape-hiss. Albini understands that a great melody is a great melody – no reason to mask it with nonsense. “Stay Useless” has the sugary undertones that are purely Cloud Nothings, but the song is given just the right amount of 90s angst to result in the perfect mix of sweet and sour.
Albini’s recipe for Sweet n’ Sour Chicken:
Near the end of the album the song “Our Plans” speaks out to a naysayer like myself. I can’t help but feel guilt for giving up so quickly on such a talented songwriter:There’s no time For another try There’s no time For another… No one knows our plans for us It won’t be long.
Often in the music world, we find bands, gobble them up, and then throw their carcass aside for the vultures to pick at. As much as I loved Baldi’s early work, I was quick to move on, a fact I’m not necessarily proud of. The same can be said with the NBA, players being left to wallow in the D-league, trying to gain attention from the hotbeds of activity that are Des Moines, Iowa and Boise, Idaho. Fortunately, there are guys like Albini and Popovich giving these guys one more try before their “time runs out.” Just don’t piss them off.