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Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory

Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Making Attack on Memory was a ballsy move on Dylan Baldi’s part. The Cleveland singer-songwriter has completely reinvented his musical project so that few of the low-fi, poppy sounds of last year’s self-titled LP remain. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the frontman even thought of renaming the band for this record. Attack on Memory is an apt album title indeed. If Baldi and producer Steve Albini are trying to make us forget the representations of a year ago, the scheme is working. The Cloud Nothings of today are more complex, more refined and more relevant than the one from the past.

From the first moments of opening track “No Future/No Past,” the difference is palpable. The record begins not with a dreamy, atmospheric guitar or a reverb-laden vocal, but a minimalist, almost classical, piano line. When the bass and drums kick in, they create a repetitive, mid-tempo, droning feel. The downcast tone stands in contrast to the peppy pop of last year’s release. We also notice right away that the production values have changed. Albini brings a bright polish that’s worlds away from the Cloud Nothings’ usual lo-fi garage sound. The end of “No Future/No Past,” explodes, with Baldi screaming the main lyric “No future/ No past” repeatedly before the final, unexpectedly dissonant chords bring the song to a crashing halt. It’s clear that Nirvana and Pavement have been in the band’s listening rotation a lot lately.

Second track “Wasted Days” is the record’s centerpiece. Its almost nine-minute running time is a surprise, coming from a band that has staked their reputation on two-minute songs. A good chunk of that time is spent in instrumental reverie, with the explosive drums and slightly psychedelic lead guitars having a heavy, yet fun, conversation. It’s jammy, to be sure, but it never feels pretentious or indulgent. Lyrically, the song touches on feelings that are in the air amongst today’s twenty-somethings. To call “Wasted Days” the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” of our time might be overstating the case, but clearly there’s a lot of emotional resonance in the main line, “I thought I would be more than this.” In an era when a faltering economy has perpetuated a class of young, working poor and the hope and change promised four years ago has fallen victim to partisan politics, many would sing with Baldi, “Well, I know my life’s not gonna change.”

If the first two tracks on Attack on Memory are perfect in their depth and exigency, the rest of the record feels like a bit of a letdown, but only ever so slightly. “Fall In” is a three-minute pop-punk song kind of in the vein of the band’s previous work, although the vocals are more aggressive. “Stay Useless” would be right at home on the Strokes’ {Is This It}, although Baldi approaches the track with a whiny vocal tone in contrast with Julian Casablancas’ sardonic delivery style. “Separation” is a quick, fiery instrumental proving definitively that Baldi has assembled a band of adept musicians to back him in his new vision. The frontman embraces his inner Billy Corgan on “No Sentiment,” a mid-tempo droner that does, nevertheless, employ some intriguing dynamic contrasts. “Our Plans” continues to the lyrical despondency of “Wasted Days,” with the line, “No one knows our plans for us/ We won’t last long,” but feels like it goes on about a minute too long. Surely there’s some element of autobiography in the expression of uncertainty and existential questioning. We’d expect a song like this from a band that has completely reinvented itself.

Album closer “Cut You” sounds like a nice little pop ditty until you realize the hardcore jealousy worthy of the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” revealed in the lyrics (“Can he be as mean as me?/ Can he cut you in your sleep?”). The repeated line, “I need something I can hurt,” as the song fades might seem like an odd way to end the album, but then you realize that it’s just another way of expressing the feelings of insecurity and self-loathing that pop up all over the record. Baldi’s lyrics might be fraught with anxiety, but the Cloud Nothings have nothing to worry about artistically. They’ve progressed so profusely in just a year and, with Attack on Memory, might have created 2012’s first truly important record.

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