When Dylan Baldi first became a presence on the radar of most listeners just over a year ago, he appeared to be yet another of the endless number of nostalgia-obsessed, Tumblrized indie musicians. Like most, he had something worthwhile, or at least relatively enjoyable, to toss in the zeitgeist: a record glossed with his own refreshingly lo-fi take on generally maligned emo and pop punk. Even without the necessary context, Cloud Nothings‘ eponymous sophomore release was a collection of phenomenally poppy and creatively recorded songs that, at the very least, has engendered Baldi as the undisputed emo pop go-to guy, anomalously sandwiched between a lo-fi scene of noisy garage music and a much more “produced” indie pop scene. Without much creative legwork or disruption of the indie status quo, Cloud Nothings could probably have occupied their unique relational space long enough to make it worth their while.
However, almost as a wily rejection of the warm response their self-titled record received from critics and the complacency it can nurture, Cloud Nothings have quickly returned with the delusively challenging, hard-boiled Attack on Memory, wherein Baldi and Co. have begun to sharply shed whatever preconceptions could be made about the young Midwestern band’s modus operendi and, in doing so, have turned out to be a very different breed of band than anyone could have imagined. While not a thorough 180° turn stylistically (there remains, in tracks like “Our Plans”, a heavy reminiscence of their earlier penchant for accessible emo and jangling vocal melodies), much of the material here could be mistaken for the work of an entirely different group of musicians. Given that Cloud Nothings tends to be something of a Dylan Baldi solo project, that could actually be the case; but, more importantly, Baldi himself is markedly different.
On opener “No Future/No Past”, doleful guitar interplay, strikingly agressive percussion and Baldi’s array of bleary croons, yelps and strained screams draw inference to some sort of indie/grunge hybrid – hypothetically the sound of true “post-grunge”, as opposed to the arena music with which we’ve come to generally associate the term. But neither this turn nor anything else on the record feels stretched or forced, thanks in large part to the band’s assured capability, blatantly obvious by the time they’ve ripped through a five-minute-long proggy noise suite in the middle of “Wasted Days”.
Reciprocating the best musical use of Steve Albini’s engineering time and talent since Neurosis’ Given to the Rising in 2006, Albini himself has turned in what will probably be the production job of 2012. The canvas of Attack on Memory is blindingly vivid with cymbals that effortlessly reach the upper registers, vocals that endearingly struggle to hold a scream and guitars that twinkle, fuzz-out and rigidly buzz with a dynamism that the tinny and shallow engineering of Cloud Nothings’ previous records could only hit at. The consummate production value found here ultimately paints Turning On and Cloud Nothings as simple scatter-shot stepping stones to the official coming-out that is Attack on Memory.
Not that the assortment-like personality of Cloud Nothings’ first two records isn’t present here as well: even at a relatively sparse eight tracks, the strange diversity in song drafting – between growers and past-era burn offs – feels less like an attempt to author a work of creative autonomy than a collection of the best music in Dylan Baldi’s current repertoire, which has probably been the band’s singular strength from day one. While many artists are focused on the album, Cloud Nothings still seem intent on focusing their energies on the song. Whether pop songs with no overt lyrical coherence or nineties alt rock-influenced instrumentals, Attack on Memory never abates the allusion that they are precisely what Cloud Nothings intended them to be.