The ‘90s have made their triumphant return to rock music. Reunions of great groups like Archers of Loaf prove that seminal albums still hold their decade-plus sway over fans, and many of the popular records of 2011 appropriated favorite sounds from that formative era. Be it The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s beloved Slumberland chime and Smashing Pumpkins riffage, Ringo Deathstarr’s counterfeit My Bloody Valentine shoegaze, or the Malkmus-and-Mascis precision-slacker melodies of my ’11 favorite, Yuck, it seems that the alt-rock legacy is truly thriving.
There is, however, a dangerous bit of the ‘90s musical landscape to re-examine: Emo. Current conceptions of the scene generally include eyeliner, white belts and endless derision from former insiders dissatisfied with the genre’s millennial direction. Truly great bands fell under its jurisdiction, like Sunny Day Real Estate and Jawbreaker, while some other titans, like Pinkerton-era Weezer, dipped toes in the sound. On the other hand, lots of people are too embarrassed to recall why emo was ever a force in the first place.
For better or for worse, Cloud Nothings’ new record “Attack on Memory” is pretty ‘90s, and also kind of emo. Steve Albini’s transparent production is familiar from his work with bands like Nirvana, and much of the group’s influence for this record can be traced through Albini-esque punk rock. The press surrounding the record describes the band’s new sound in shocking terms, after their self-titled album’s efficient fun and previous home-recorded work on “Turning On.”
Though he has shown a respect for great alt and lo-fi music, Nothings mastermind Dylan Baldi does make his inspirations a little more obvious on this record, going further to embrace Pac-Northwest punk legends the Wipers as common ancestry with his other 20th century predecessors.
Baldi doesn’t shy away from the emo influence, either. Opener “No Future/No Past” wastes no time in developing a slow, nervous ambience à la Sunny Day Real Estate, dynamically working from a whisper to an unselfconscious scream. Though the record generally stays quicker and more taut than “No Future,” it’s an interesting opening salvo for a clear redefinition of the band’s sound. It also sets a very heavy melancholy in the lyrical content, obvious even in song titles: “Fall In,” “Separation,” “Cut You.” It’s a marked difference from Baldi’s old coyness of “Hey Cool Kid,” almost heading for comical.
The band’s precision helps “Attack on Memory” from straying into immaturity, as do Baldi’s more ambitious vocals, which fray and crack with a despondent fury. Nine-minute centerpiece “Wasted Days” descends into a primal instrumental blur for its middle section, suddenly bursting forth into screeches of “I thought/ I would/ Be more/ Than this.” The concept of the record sounds like an uncertain experiment, but Baldi is obviously carefully studied in songwriting and execution. Part of the strength is the brevity; “Memory” clocks in just over half an hour. Maybe he ran out of ideas, but all the better. It’s easy and rewarding to listen through several times in a sitting.
Cloud Nothings haven’t entirely ditched their previous — and again, also ‘90s-steeped — sound, either. “Stay Useless,” a fitting single for the record, evidences the same dual-guitar effervescence, and album closer “Cut You” ends with as melodic a refrain as anything on the self titled record. Granted, its lyrics include “I miss you ’cause I like damage/ I need something I can hurt,” so it’s not as pleasant as some of his other work. Some of the songs don’t seem familiar, but Baldi’s not entirely divorcing himself from what he used to do.
So yes, Cloud Nothings went emo. Don’t worry. If you’ve listened to the band before, it’s an interesting exercise to figure out how they got here; if you’re a fan of sad rock music, the album’s worth a look. “Attack on Memory” recontextualizes some really great moments in indie rock music and ends up being listenable and affecting, though brief.