If I Had a Hi-Fi
Original creations aside, nothing truly defines an artist quite like their choice in cover songs. Whether performed live or, as in If I Had a Hi-Fi’s case, recorded as a transposed compilation, the artist basically says to its audience, “These are the bands that inspire us, now enjoy our take on their music.” It’s befuddling that more artists don’t produce testaments to their already adulated influences. Or maybe not. After experiencing Nada Surf’s take on a choice selection of their favorite bands (and a surprising amount of singer-songwriters), I came to a quick conclusion: Hi-Fi must be listened to from both angles before any conclusion can be even attempted. A couple of spins as a strictly original creation? A post-geek Nada Surf outing replete with tastefully distorted chords and reliably catchy licks. A couple of spins as a cover compilation? A lackluster hodgepodge of vain reproductions. The answer lies somewhere in the smoggy middle.
Bill Fox’s galloping “Electrocution” leads the record off with a jangly reintroduction by Nada Surf. The trio’s recreation of Fox’s subtly hazy folk tune – full alternative sound, excessive vocal harmonies, upbeat punk-pop driving force – is exactly the staunch self-indulgence we’d expect from them. The process is pretty uniform on Hi-Fi. There’s nary a style Nada Surf can’t homogenize into their own. Matt Caws’ fluttery, golden voice is the chief fooling mechanism. Without a back-to-back comparison, it’s hard to believe “The Agony of Laffite” was originally a Spoon track carried by Britt Daniel’s steely timbre. On Kate Bush’s “Love and Anger,” Nada Surf facelifts the campy ’80s-ness, extricating the lush, epic song bottled within Bush’s confines. Here, the trio exacts a rare feat accomplished only by a handful of artists; they transformed an original song into something completely different and better. Their gentle, acoustic rendition of Arthur Russell’s urban, new-wavey “Janine” bares similar admirable qualities.
But to see a cover of “Enjoy the Silence” on this compilation may, after a fleeting glimpse of excitement, cause doubts. Do we really need another cover of Depeche Mode’s increasingly-clichéd classic? Nada Surf’s version falters and stumbles awkwardly at their sped-up tempo of choice, many moments Caws sounding like he lost his vocal cues. Countless artists have done already it and with more compelling results. Other covers are mere poor song choices. There’s no reason we need another punky version of Soft Pack’s “Bright Side.” And nor does (French singer) Coralie Clement’s haunting, acoustic “Bye Bye Beaute” need a dumbed-down American makeover (although to his credit, Caws sings in French).
Everything results in ambivalence. A few good covers here, a few lackluster ones there. Ultimately, Hi-Fi sounds like it could have been Nada Surf’s own brainchild. It flows and climaxes, it arcs and, most importantly, it works. They sucked the essence of out of each artists’ voice and spit back out the way they wanted to. That’s precisely the point. Having lived down the popularity (pun unintended) of their ’90s smash “Popular,” the trio’s songwriting has matured over the years in ways their hit never indicated. Hi-Fi has its gems, sure, but even with a stronger cover list, it doesn’t amount to the quality of an album the band could surely write itself.