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.
Cloud Nothings“Turning On”/ “Leave You Forever”[Car Park/ True Panther 2010]
This is such a hectic time of year: last minute purchases, making a list and checking it twice (or two dozen times), and late, sleepless nights while visions of Superchunk dance in my head. Yes my friends, it’s time to come up with my year-end best albums list. I always look forward to this annual process, although every year or so, an album arises that throws a wrench into my system. Back in 2008 it was Jay Reatard’s “Matador Singles 08”, a collection of songs that had been released on Matador Records as singles over the course of the year. There is not a mediocre song in the bunch, and of all the albums from that year, it’s one of the few that I still revisit frequently.
An album like “Matador Singles 08” raises some difficult questions because it was arguably the best collection of songs released in 2008, yet I didn’t place it on my best albums list that year based on principle. I convinced myself that it wasn’t truly an album, rather a collection of songs in the same sense that a book of short stories isn’t deemed a novel. I decided that to be categorized as a pure album it should have a backbone holding all the songs together: whether it be based on the overlying theme or the production keeping each song within the same unique world.
Since that 2008 omission, I still have regrets. When Jay Reatard died earlier this year, my guilt was heightened, although I can proudly say his 2009 album “Watch Me Fall”, ignored by most writers, made my top ten. And I think “Watch Me Fall” proves my point – it had a definite theme of depression and self hate while the songs on “Matador Singles 08” cover a wide range of unrelated topics. A song like “I’m Watching You”, featured on both albums, even furthers my point. On the 2009 version the song seems to be a part of the “Watch Me Fall” universe, while the version on “Matador Singles 08” seems more like a loner, thriving on it’s own merit.
But just when I think I’ve got my opinion set in stone on the whole compilation thing, along come Cloud Nothings with the 2010 release “Turning On”. Cloud Nothings began as simply Dylan Baldi, an 18-year-old college student from Cleveland, recording songs in his parent’s basement. Over the months leading all the way back to the fall of 2009, Baldi posted his songs on the internet and quickly gained a buzz due to his knack for addictive lo-fi pop melodies. By the end of the year he had dropped out of college and found himself opening for bands like Real Estate and Woods.
“Turning On” is a compilation of all the songs Baldi released over the past year and a half, resulting in a treasury of pop-punk magic that shows a young man honing his powers like Luke Skywalker in Dagobah. His natural talent for producing enchanting melodies is undeniable and gushes out of each muddle of fuzz and echo.
“My Little Raygun” actually reminds me a little of the late, great Jay Reatard:
Baldi is wise beyond his years in the art of writing songs that are simple yet compelling at the same time. Despite this perspicacity, his songs still feel juvenile and effortless which results in 14-straight tracks that not only cause nostalgia, but transport you back to the early days of pimples and pubes. He sings of the concerns of a teen, yet they are filled with a gravity that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
A live acoustic performance of “Cool Kids” that is, well, pretty damn cool:
So does “Turning On” deserve a place on my best albums of 2010 list? Do I dare go against my notion of what a true album should be comprised of?
No, but not because of my position on compilations – I still hold my beliefs true that an album is more than a collection of songs. As startling and exciting as Baldi’s album may be, it can also get a bit messy. The drums sound amateurish throughout and the lo-fi production value gets in the way. I understand that the errant crack of drumsticks and the unpredictable bass drum can add to the quirky nature of the Cloud Nothing’s music, but it can also dampen an otherwise fiery pop track.
“Can’t Stay Awake” is a great song interrupted by a strange drum melt-down near the end:
Since escaping his parent’s basement, Baldi has acquired a full-piece band and a few months ago they released “Leave You Forever” a four song EP that takes the pulp of “Turning On” and squeezes out its poppy-juiciness, creating exceptionally fresh results. I’m hard-pressed to find another album in 2010 that has four songs that are as good in combination as “Leave You Forever” has to offer.
Which raises another question: can an EP be considered an album when it’s only four songs?
Oh crap…it looks like I have more sleepless nights ahead me.
“Leave You Forever” – one of the Fantastic Four on the EP: