Winter, a time when the days are short, the roads are covered in ice and a vague feeling of gloom hangs in the air, has come to an end. The sunlight and the fresh air of spring make us all feel a little bit better. The season is associated with rebirth and new beginnings. It’s nearly as much of a time for a clean slate as the beginning of the calendar year. Seemingly-perpetually slushy streets clear up, and the coldest of hearts thaw. Whereas winter commonly makes people crave distance – to be anywhere but where they are – spring is about soaking everything in, about being present.
So, it’s fitting that one of the best albums of the spring is called Here and Nowhere Else. The album, which just dropped this week, is the third studio album released by the Cleveland band Cloud Nothings; however, it’s only its second since it became a full band. It began with singer-songwriter/guitarist Dylan Baldi in 2009. At the tender age of 18, Baldi was a restless freshman at Case Western Reserve University. On weekends, he retreated to his parents’ house where, for fun, he recorded music on GarageBand and posted songs under several fake band accounts on MySpace. One of his projects, Cloud Nothings, garnered the attention of Bridgetown Records, which offered to release his first EP, Turning On.
Turning On is a scuzzy garage rock record that is awfully raw, but also really enjoyable. As messy as it is, it never feels half-baked, and its potential prompted indie record label Carpark Records to pick up Cloud Nothings, and give Baldi a chance to see what he could with a full-length release. The signing gave Baldi the confidence to drop out of college and throw himself into a music career. In 2011, Baldi released his first official LP, Cloud Nothings. Cloud Nothings is a much more polished – and a much improved – release than its endearing predecessor. It’s all power chords and pop-affected hooks, filled with ah-ah-ahs and ooh-ooh-oohs. It’s, in a way, a more rambunctious record, though. There were some traces on Turning On, but it’s the first time that Cloud Nothings bears more in common with the fast and furious sounds of pop punk than the easy-listening vibes of indie rock. There are, however, a few hints of surf rock affectations not unlike those of The Vaccines to keep it relatively balanced.
As Baldi grew as an artist, so too did the band. In 2012, he made his touring band part of the band, and together Cloud Nothings – which then consisted of Baldi, guitarist Joe Boyer, bassist TJ Duke and drummer Jayson Gerycz – recorded Attack on Memory. The decision to expand the band proved to be a wise one because it also expanded their sound. Attack on Memory is a considerably angrier record than Baldi’s previous efforts. Whereas previously Baldi seemed to accept life’s successes and failures with glass-half-full aplomb, in Memory he seemed frustrated, fed up and ready to lash out. It has songs with titles like “No Sentiment,” “Wasted Days,” and the Strokes-infused “Stay Useless”. It’s more atmospheric than anything previously released by the band, and in the album’s opener – another darkly titled single called “No Future/No Past” – it surprisingly evokes the memory of The Pixies. With all of that being said, it’s a powerful and very impressive album.
Which brings us to back to Cloud Nothings’ latest release Here and Nowhere Else. With Here and Nowhere Else, Cloud Nothings manages to split the difference between the dark rage of Attack on Memory and the power pop sensibilities of the first two records. Cloud Nothings manage to let a little more light in, without losing any of their bite; there’s still plenty of angst, but it feels more grown up this time around. It has an air of the “adult punk rock” feel that Japandroids had in their titanic 2012 release Celebration Rock. (If adult punk rock isn’t already a term, then I’m coining it right now.) Pop punk is typically dominated by lovelorn teenagers, or lovelorn adults waxing nostalgic about their teenage years; Cloud Nothings’ angst feels less like the trials and tribulations of a naïve teenager and more like those of a growing, but still-obdurate adult. Even so, Here and Nowhere Else is a much happier record than Attack on Memory.
Baldi has obviously grown a lot as an artist in the past four years or so, but in Here, we can hear how much the band has grown together. Its duo guitar attack is now prominent, and Jason Garycz’s drumming is as frenetic as ever in tempo-changing jams, like “No Thoughts,” and especially, “Psychic Trauma”. Baldi’s distinctive vocals work as both an effective croon and an exasperated wail. Here and Nowhere Else’s true standout is the album-closing stunner, “I’m Not Part of Me”. It is here that Cloud Nothings beautifully strikes the right balance between garage/indie rock and pop punk/emo to create the most anthemic song of the record – and arguably the best of their young career. It sounds like peak-era Jimmy Eat World. It’s about desperately shutting the world out and defiantly denying that anything’s wrong, even though you know exactly what’s haunting you.In the adorable music video, the tormentors of life come in the form of childhood bullies, possibly unrequited loves and stern parents, but ghosts of the past can haunt you at any age. “I’m learning how/ to be here and nowhere else/ how to focus on what I can do myself,” Baldi sings with surprising optimism in his voice. Growing up is a life-long endeavor.
Cloud Nothings has plenty of room for growth, and plenty of time for it, too – don’t forget Dylan Baldi is only 22 years old – but they show really exciting signs of a promising future in “I’m Not Part of Me,” and in all of Here and Nowhere Else, really.
For the past month, the music-obsessed corners of Twitter have been loudly chirping about a new album by a lesser-known indie band known as The War on Drugs. It’s been called the album of the spring, an early album of the year candidate – and not without reason. The War on Drugs’ third album, the appropriately titled Lost in the Dream, is something of a masterpiece. Yes, Here and Nowhere Else is the perfect album to blare when it’s nice out, but springtime has plenty of rainy days, too. Lost in a Dream is made for those mystical rainy days that seem to fluctuate between being peaceful and haunting. It’s for driving around on a foggy night as much as it is for lying down after a long day.
Lead singer/guitarist Adam Granduciel and guitarist Kurt Vile founded the War on Drugs in 2005. The two were already friends and frequent collaborators as Granduciel had toured with Vile’s backing band, The Violators. They added a drummer/organist, a drummer and bassist, and released their first album in 2008, Wagonwheel Blues, a compilation of things that Granduciel and Vile had been working on for a few years. In 2011, the band released a second album called Slave Ambient. It was well received by music critics, despite featuring a largely different lineup than Wagonwheel Blues. However, it ended up being the last album to feature Vile, who left the band to focus on his solo career. Last spring, Vile released his fifth solo album, Wakin on a Pretty Daze, to rave reviews in indie and stoner rock circles. (Full disclosure: I haven’t listened to the first two albums by The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream is my first introduction to the band, too – but I am a fan of Vile’s ultra-chill Wakin on Pretty Daze.) The constant lineup changes coupled with the toll of continuous touring left Granduciel in something of daze himself. He and bassist David Hartley were the only ones left who had been with The War on Drugs since its beginnings, and now Granduciel would be charged with being the driving force behind the band for its foreseeable future. Consequently, anxiety, depression and fear seeped in and served as inspiration for Ganduciel as the band, with its newly reconstructed lineup of Granduciel, Hartley and keyboardist/pianist/guitarist Robbie Bennett and drummer/percussionist Patrick Berkery, began to shape the next The War on Drugs album.
Lost in the Dream gives every instrument and every member a chance to shine, but it’s at its best when every part is working together at once. On the album-opening “Under the Pressure,” the light tap-tap of the drums backs the Coldplay-esque piano strokes, which back steady guitar strumming, until bouncy synth joins in and takes it to another level. On the title track, “Lost in the Dream,” light country rock acoustic chords take turns in the spotlight with melancholy harmonica courtesy of Granduciel. In the 7-minute mini-epic, “An Ocean Between the Waves,” with its upbeat drums, driving bass line, sparkling synth and escalating guitar solos, The War on Drugs channels The Dire Straits. Every song is accompanied by Granduciel’s soft and alluring drawl, which occasionally evokes Bob Dylan and frequently evokes Tom Petty. Lost in the Dream is a hypnotizing, epic marathon of an album. It’s a series of loosely connected dreams that really do feel like they take place in a dream world. Each one is dictated by dream logic in which melancholy and bliss feel as if they’re separated by a fine line, rather than the gulf that resides between the two in real life.
In 2014, Lost in the Dream has no peers. Although plenty of albums and bands hearken back to other eras, like, say, Daft Punk with their recent disco-infused electronica, or Tame Impala with their Beatles-eque vocals and ‘60s-tinged psychedelia, only The War on Drugs sounds as if it came directly from the 70s and 80s.
It seems to be to be the only possibility – unless, of course, you found their tunes in your dreams.
Among the most anticipated releases of this busy spring was the latest from the gruff and much celebrated rock darlings The Hold Steady. Known for their heavy riffs and rollicking bar-band feel, The Hold Steady have been cranking out intellectually stimulating anthems for over 10 years now. They pride themselves on making you think every bit as much as you pump your fist. Their songs tell detailed stories that shine a light on the problems of both the heartland and urban America. Their protagonists tend to be either shady scumbags or middling every-men (or every-women), all searching for their way in the world and their own form of reconciliation. The band hails from Brooklyn, but lead singer Craig Finn is from Minneapolis. As a result, he’s heavily influenced by blue-collar rock stars, like Bruce Springsteen, as well as underground hip-hop artists, such as Brother Ali and Atmosphere. His lyrics are dense paragraphs, not hashtags. His gravelly delivery often sounds more like he’s talking instead of singing, but there’s a fiery passion behind each and every verse.
The Hold Steady’s sixth album, Teeth Dreams, is their first full-length release since they went on a brief hiatus following their 2010 album, Heaven is Whenever. The only thing they’ve released since then was their punktastic Game of Thrones song cover “The Bear and The Maiden Fair”. However, they didn’t carry that Irish punk influence over into this, which is too bad – that song was a riot – but not the end of the world. With Teeth Dreams, The Hold Steady mainly returns to familiar territory. They ditch the generalities that held them back on Heaven is Whenever, and get back to the business of vivid storytelling. The themes are new, though. Whereas in the past they’ve dealt with struggle, addiction, depression, redemption, religion and aging, Teeth Dreams focuses on fear, consumerism, materialism and unlikely perseverance.
Everyone knows the kind of dreams that the title is referring to: the dreams, or maybe nightmares, rather, in which your teeth are falling out uncontrollably. There are a lot of supposed meanings behind this specific type of dream, ranging from anxiety about money or personal appearance, to sexual impotence and the consequences of getting old, to just the fear of failure itself. More times than not, Finn is referring to anxiety of money and personal appearance. Taking a page or two out of the David Foster Wallace epic novel Infinite Jest, he mentions having someone else’s teeth in his dreams in “The Only Thing,” and the American Sadness of feeling the constant compulsion to fill a hole inside us with consumer goods in “On With the Business”. However, if you think about it, whether mentioned explicitly or suggested implicitly, almost all of the band’s songs are about failure. It’s a fitting title for an album by The Hold Steady even if its songs don’t conjure a disorienting fog in the way of Lost in the Dream; Teeth Dreams is about dealing with the anxieties of dreams in reality.
While overall Teeth Dreams doesn’t hit the highs of their first few records, it is a definite step up over its immediate predecessor, and it’s another stellar entry in The Hold Steady’s impressive discography. It’s not particularly innovative; instead, the characters, the sounds and the feel are all comfortingly familiar. But like the spring, it’s mainly just nice to have it back in your life again.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes about sports and culture for Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Voices, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.