“We tend to do things the same way. We aren’t super adventurous”. Thus spake Nada Surf drummer Ira Elliot nearly three years ago on this very site, at that point discussing their last full-length, Lucky.
Now, there’s no need to use a quote taken out of context as a rod with which to beat a band half to death with – and yet here we are. Nada Surf are a band that actively prefer playing acoustic sets to full band gigs, and whose records from a decade ago sound nearly identical to this new release – vocals overwhelmingly prominent in order for the listener to appreciate the poetry of singer Matthew Caws while the music itself is barely audible, a simple backing to Caws’ earnest, very occasionally neatly-observed lyrics.
Yet. Yet they are so uncool, so straight and serious, take the art of songwriting so very very seriously, wear their plaid shirts with such intent that it’s sometimes hard to resist their furrowed brows, their strained observations about the loss of youth (‘When I Was Young’), their attempts at playfulness (‘Jules and Jim’ – yes, it’s best not to discuss the titles) and even their weird, semi-creepy allusions to sexy times (‘No Snow On The Mountain’).
After all, this is the band that overcame years and years of mistreatment by major labels; survived the career killing of a massive MTV hit in the shape of 1996 anthem ‘Popular’; this is a trio admired by Death Cab For Cutie to the degree that Chris Walla sometimes produces their records, Ben Gibbard guesting on them; they’re a band with the good taste to cover The Go-Betweens and Kate Bush on their recent covers album If I Had A Hi-Fi. They are, like most survivors, simply endearing.
The vocal melodies on tracks like ‘Teenage Dreams’ and ‘Waiting For Something’ are as good as something from a Weakerthans record and sometimes they even strike a little vein of Jonah Matranga/Far-style harmonic gold, as on ‘Looking Through’. Even when they are extremely clumsy, as on the sweet as Reese’s cups ‘Let The Fight Do The Fighting’, they are still dropping memorable earworm tunes and the occasional smart line.
Of course, there is “awesome” at the top of the rock mountain, and in the deep pit of slurry at the very bottom of that hill lay bands like The Goo Goo Dolls and Hootie & The Blowfish, Blues Traveller and Better Than Ezra; haggard ’90s leftovers, seeing themselves as torch carriers for some kind of nouveau M.O.R path to truth and enlightenment.
Nada Surf are slipping into the quicksand as perilously as ever, yet somehow there’s always a vine for them to grab onto in order to make it back to the surface. Just.