Review: Cloud Nothings, Attack on Memory

This is the sound of growth, of maturation, of evolution. It’s the illustration of the axiom: talent borrows; genius steals. It’s the sound of adolescence becoming adulthood.

A grandiose introduction for a record review, to be sure. But the Cloud Nothings’ second album Attack on Memory (released in January) takes such a quantum leap from its predecessors that a little hyperbole feels in order. Until recently, Cleveland songwriter Dylan Baldi had spent his career borrowing snippets of indie rock history, churning out record after record of generic lo-fi rock. His work ethic was admirable – six singles and two albums in three years, plus a couple of cassette-only split releases and a digital single – but the music itself was forgettable, a fourth-generation tape dub of the moment indie rock became an identifiable sound.

His constant output, coupled with his age – Baldi dropped out of his first year of college to pursue music full-time – made for good press. And a songwriter that prolific no doubt has talent. But except for “I Am Rooftop” – a nod to Guided by Voices’ fascination with tape hiss and space aliens that received heavy airplay on WCDB – nothing stood out to me. What notoriety Cloud Nothings had stemmed from their story rather than their music itself. “A” for effort; ho-hum on everything else. But Attack on Memory changes that. Cloud Nothings finally stand on their own feet; they finally live up to their hype.

In a January 23 interview, Baldi told The A.V. Club’s Steven Hyden about his newfound obsession with the Wipers, calling them “a huge influence” on his recent songwriting. It shows. The album pulls its primary inspiration from the Portland band’s 1981 album Youth of America. The extended song structures, the murky guitar tones, the driving tempos – Attack on Memory even cribs its sequencing from the Wipers’ second album, with the enthusiasm of a young band who have just stepped into a new musical world and want to explore it to its fullest.

Talent borrows; genius steals. I’ve seen that line attributed to Pablo Picasso and Julian Cope; I’ve heard it applied to Shakespeare and to David Bowie. Theft only pays off, though, if you steal something worth stealing. The Wipers are just that: the palimpsest upon which all grunge was written, the bedrock underlying so much of rock music for the past two decades. (Nirvana owed them an especially heavy musical debt.) At their best, guitarist-cum-engineer-cum-songwriter Greg Sage recreated with sound the isolation and constant rainfall of his Pacific Northwestern home; he and his band were profoundly visual, spatial musicians. Yet the Wipers themselves have remained obscure, known primarily to record collectors and other musicians.

I would understand, then, if Attack on Memory were Youth of America Part Two – and I would enjoy it. Even after 50-odd years of rock history, there remain few albums worth ripping off completely; Youth is one of them. But Cloud Nothings didn’t simply Rotoscope over their new favorite album. They absorb the Wipers’ music as a nutrient – a staple of their musical diet, but not the only component. Cloud Nothings wrote and recorded Attack on Memory as a full band (Baldi produced all their previous music by himself), and their interplay elevates this album from an homage to an all-time great record to an actual great record as they draw from a wide array of musical sources. It’s not that I can’t identify Cloud Nothings’ influences; over the course of 35 minutes, I hear echoes of the Jesus Lizard’s precision noise rock, Dinosaur Jr.’s guitar histrionics, Mission of Burma’s arty postpunk, even 1960s pop. But Cloud Nothings succeed where a band like, say, the Men fail, in that they integrate their component parts into a cohesive whole – not a mere collage meant to reward critics and collectors with sharp ears.

The nine-minute “Wasted Days,” for example, strongly resembles Youth’s title track at first listen; the basic structure is nearly identical. But where the Wipers splice seven minutes of noise into a three-verse punk song and leave it at that, Cloud Nothings launch into a droning Krautrock jam at the three-minute mark before exploding into an enraged coda. This, the track most directly lifted from Youth of America, veers off in directions that Sage never imagined. And standout song “No Sentiment” shares nothing with the Wipers save for its bleakness, relying instead on thudding bass and a lurching, cymbal-cracking beat while Baldi rails against cheap nostalgia. It’s a true band effort, and something almost entirely removed from the polite power-pop of Cloud Nothing’s first few singles.

Plenty of acclaimed bands revolve around one creative force – Smog and Bill Callahan, for example, or post–You’re Living All Over Me Dinosaur Jr. (The Wipers, for that matter, really consisted of Greg Sage and his journeyman rhythm section.) But working alone can wear a deep rut. Baldi recognizes this. “I was consciously trying to write differently,” he explained to Hyden. It’s paid off; indeed, the album’s one misstep, “Fall In,” is the song that most resembles his older work. Collaboration has enhanced his songwriting, but it hasn’t led to dilettantism or a complete abandonment of his earlier style. Baldi’s previous loves still run throughout the album; they’ve just matured. He’s matured.

Maturity. I wrote that Attack on Memory sounds like the passing of adolescence into adulthood, and I meant it. As teenagers, we’re thrashing about trying to forge our own distinct identities. As adults, we possess greater confidence; we no longer singularly obsess over establishing ourselves. Baldi mapped out an identity for Cloud Nothings early on, and he’s done well for himself with it. Eventually, though, the time came to move on, to challenge himself. To evolve.

Such a choice didn’t come without doubts. Baldi admitted to The A.V. Club that he considered releasing Attack on Memory under a different name, worried that old fans would reject it. Upon playback, he realized the album was “kind of a downer” after his previous run of releases. In the end, though, Baldi kept the Cloud Nothings name – partly out of convenience, partly to acknowledge that Attack on Memory represents not a detour from the band’s former path, but a necessary foray along that path into new territory. Smart decision.

Some people prefer the urgency and immediacy of a band’s first few attempts to define itself. (“It was all downhill after their first album” – we’ve all heard the lament.) Me, I’d rather listen to a band grow as artists, become comfortable with themselves and their sound, fight stagnation and boredom. Cloud Nothings are still a young band; if Attack on Memory is any indication, I’d imagine we’ll have loads of time to hear where they go next. I look forward to it.

Attack on Memory was released January 24, 2012. Available on LP, CD, and iTunes from www.carparkrecords.com.

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