Friday, January 20, 2012

Album Review: The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy - Nada Surf

"If I'm waiting for nothing then what am I doing?" So wondered Nada Surf on its 1996 Karmic EP. Now, some sixteen years down the line, lead singer Matthew Caws is still complaining that "it always feels like I'm waiting for something". The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh? Given that Nada Surf have been focused on aging, their place in the world and the passage of time since that first EP, it's no surprise that these themes hang heavily over their seventh studio album. Matthew Caws says that the title The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy was a saying pinched from his astronomer father but it's also an incredibly fitting description of the band's consistent focus on these universal themes that has shifted focus or matured but never really changed over their nearly two decade long career.

Barsuk's press release for the album focused heavily on the fact that it was was recorded live in studio and that in-the-room energy makes itself apparent starting with the first track, "Clear Eye Clouded Mind". Although Nada Surf doesn't work with a broad sonic palate Stars immediately differentiates itself from the crisp, clean production of If I Had A Hi-Fi and the keys-soaked lushness of Lucky. Like Baltimore's Oranges Band, they also brought in former GBV guitarist Doug Gillard as a hired gun for this record and, though the fuzzed-out power trio sound still dominates, it's clear that they've gone from Lucky's keyboards to a guitar record. Indeed, I even hear a few solos peek through on songs like "Looking Through" and "When I Was Young", a rare indulgence for Nada Surf. The acoustic/electric dynamics also scrape and pop to great effect on "Waiting For Something" and "Jules and Jim" with the only outside instrumentation coming from a timid horn on "Let The Fight Do The Fighting" and an impish little synth line in "No Snow On The Mountain".

There was a time when Nada Surf made music that could soundtrack your Saturday night bar-hopping. Then they moved more towards music for that grey, aimless Saturday afternoon before going out. At this point they're writing a soundtrack for a Saturday night drive to get home by 10:30 to pay the babysitter. That doesn't mean that they've given up or they're played out, they're just moving on towards that next, more mature and accomplished phase in life - you know, the thing you wish that Weezer would do. When they explore life and relationships' conflicted natures in "Jules and Jim" or find the wisdom to recognize that changing goals doesn't necessarily signal defeat in "No Snow on the Mountain" these seem like earned and worthwhile realizations that come with age, not signs of defeat.

To be fair, the album doesn't always fully hit its mark. After a promising start about drinking in his parents' house and wandering the streets of New York in the middle of the night, Caws turns "Let The Fight Do The Fighting" into a nonsensical slog (I have no idea what the chorus even means). Similarly, "Teenage Dreams" suffers at the hands of a good-in-theory - "sometimes I ask the wrong questions but get the right answers" - (OK so far) but ultimately mawkish chorus - "moved to a tears by a subway dancer" (eesh). However the sticky alt-rock meets Big Star melodies combined with the upbeat, gauzy guitar and Elliot Ira and Daniel Lorca's insistent rhythm section help make even slight miscues go down easy.

And, at its best, this album provides enough potential encore mates for "Always Love" or "Happy Kid" with songs that rush past with equal parts Gallic ennui and boyish energy. "Looking Through"'s insistent "are you dancing" inquiry is certainly bound to create the very response it seeks when performed live, while both "The Moon Is Calling" and "No Snow On The Mountain" slather hooks on top of power chords on top of adrenaline. In terms of energy though the band probably never surpasses opener "Clear Eye Clouded Mind", which provides perhaps the purest dose of Nada Surf's live energy and surging guitar put down on record since 2005's "Blankest Year".

For an album that starts with Caws asking the same question that he has been for years, "what was that world I was dreaming of", The Stars Are Indifferent actually ends on a note of relative closure. The band closes with an acknowledgement that endless waiting and questioning and dreaming of youth are all well and good (perhaps inevitable). They also know that losing yourself entirely within those worlds is not only misguided but costly. "I cannot believe the future's happening to me" Caws sings in what is for this band a revelatory statement. Sure, we need to examine ourselves and our lives in order to find our place in this universe. Sure, doing that helps us live meaningful lives and gain perspective on our actions but the point is ultimately what we end up doing based on all that reflection. Your thinking won't change life's realities because the stars are indifferent to astronomy but there's lots of terrestrial objects upon which you can make a difference. 

Clear Eye Clouded Mind
When I Was Young
Looking Through

Stream the record, then go buy it and/or see them live!

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