All That Glitters is Gold - Nada Surf: Beyond "Popular"
This is All That Glitters is Gold, a recurring piece about some of my favorite artists, albums, tracks, and live shows. Here I will write about the music I love, most of which inspired me to start Alt Revue in the first place. I'm excited to highlight this music and talk about how it has impacted me. I hope you enjoy getting a glimpse into some of my favorites!
(Photo Credit - Annie Dressner)
"Popular" was a fucking behemoth in my younger days. People would excitedly scream it's spoken-word lyrics. I have a question for you. What comes to your mind when you hear Nada Surf? Many people go right back to "Popular". Do you know many other tracks beyond that? What I'm hear to talk about is that Nada Surf may just be the most underrated alt band there is and much of this has to do with the fact that the rest of their catalog sounds nothing like the song "Popular" and High/Low, (the album it came out on). What I'd like to do is to examine the career of one of my favorite bands since the release of High/Low (1996) when Nada Surf's sound began to evolve and hopefully entice you to check out all of their fantastic work.
The Proximity Effect (1998) - Ah, the beginning of the growth of Nada Surf's sound, it all starts here. Though there are some songs on the album that hold some of the harder sound found in High/Low. Right in the beginning of the album with "Hyperspace", we hear what is essentially a Nada Surf track, bright vocals (sometimes harmonized), fast guitars and bass, and prominent drums. This song is so unlike anything on they had previously done, but would be the mold for what the future would hold. Really, the first three tracks of the album "Hyperspace", "Amateur", and "80 Windows" show off that signature sound that Nada Surf would become known for. "Mother's Day is a bit more of a harder rock vision of this sound, which makes sense for the story the song tells. They change course with "Troublemaker", which is a hauntingly slow song. The melodies are downright gorgeous on this one. The use of key juxtaposition between vocals and music is entrancing. One thing that Nada Surf does so well in this song that they are known for is play with timing throughout a song. Playing familiar parts of tracks at different speeds to pick up certain sections. They shift seamlessly between sections such as this, and pull the listener along with them. "Bacardi" is another track that demonstrates this element of their sound beautifully.
Tracks to Start With - "Hyperspace", "Amateur", "80 Windows", "Bacardi", "Slow Down", and "Silent Fighting".
Let Go (2003) - The absolute crown gem of Nada Surf's albums. But don't just take my word for it, lead singer Matthew Caws also believes this. Every track on this album is so tight musically and vocally. In fact, last year for the 15th Anniversary of the album, Nada Surf toured in celebration of the album. They played with no opener, played Let Go cover to cover, took a break and came back out and played another set. I was lucky enough to see their stop in Austin, Texas on the tour and got to meet Matthew Caws (see below, I'm way too excited)! Anyway, to the songs! "Blizzard of '77" is my favorite song by Nada Surf, bar none. It's haunting, riveting, and beautiful. There's a story behind my love of this track, I've already written it once, you can read it an a past From the Vinyl Vault that Frankie and I did.
That said, "Inside of Love" is the big hit from this album. It was once used famously on How I Met Your Mother on a emotional rooftop scene, as seen here. Beyond that, it's just a damn fine song. It's the kind of good that pulls your guts out and throws them on the floor good. There have been times I listen to this song and I just feel an ache in my core. It's always said music is made to move you and I'll be damned if this song doesn't do just that. Some other tracks that jump out here include "Hi-Speed Soul" which demonstrates Nada Surf's presence ability to rip some guitar riffs in their tracks, but they are always sure to do it in a melodic manner. What draws me to this one is the build to the hook and it's explosion when it finally comes, pure perfection. Another track that stands up well here is "The Way You Wear Your Head". It's lyrically masterful, Matthew Caws is such a fantastic lyricist and often doesn't get the credit he deserves on this. That aside, I love how well this song moves melodically. There's so much going on with instrumentation, but it never feels crowded, it's perfect. Finally, if you read my album reviews, I always talk about "landing the plane or ship" about the last song on an album and doing this well. "Paper Boats" does this flawlessly. It's slow, the lyrics are almost conversational, but the chorus is hyper melodic. It's hard to describe how they achieve this, partially through harmonization, partially through subtlety, it's just the right way to cap off a great album. Especially with the breakdown.
Tracks to Start With - "Blizzard of '77", "Happy Kid", "Inside of Love", "Fruit Fly" "Blonde on Blonde", "Hi-Speed Soul", "Killian's Red", "The Way You Wear Your Head", and "Paper Boats".
The Weight is a Gift (2005) - Another of my favorite albums from Nada Surf, The Weight is a Gift shows a continuation of their signature sound but continued evolution with lyrics and instrumentation. "Concrete Bed" kicks the album off with a mostly acoustic banger. I love the message of the chorus "To find someone you love / You gotta be someone you love". I know it may seem cliche, but in order to love others, we do have to have self-love first. "Do it Again" has some snappy and fun lyrics. The melodies are so tight and the bass guitar (like most Nada Surf tracks) is just so damn good on this one. "Always Love" might just be the anthem of Nada Surf as a band. It has a powerful message of overcoming hate. They put it on merchandise because the band is all about social consciousness and overcoming hate. With all that said, it's just an amazing song with one of the best choruses I've ever heard, like on anything. Listen to it and tell me that's not a great hook. The lyrics are also simple, poignant, and powerful: "But Always Love / Hate will get you every time/ Always Love /Even when you wanna fight".
After such a powerful song, Nada Surf slows it down a bit with "What is Your Secret". This serves as a good change of pace from the more upbeat tracks they had been playing on The Weight is a Gift. "Blankest Year" might be the most fun song in Nada Surf's catalog to sing a long to. They are always sure to play it live with a call and response from the audience. The lyrics make a perfect sing along for audiences to get a little out of control: "Oh, fuck it / (Audience - FUCK IT!) / I'm gonna have a party (x2)". This call and response has become custom at Nada Surf shows and has been featured on their live albums as well. "Comes a Time" slows things down again with a song that moves at an almost ethereal pace. The chorus makes you want to sway and when played live, that's what many people do.
Tracks to Start With - "Concrete Bed", "Do It Again", "Always Love", "What is Your Secret", "All Is a Game", "Blankest Year", and "Comes a Time".
Lucky (2008) - Lucky kicks off with another of my favorite Nada Surf tracks "See these Bones". It's got a bit of everything I love. Great guitars and melody, dynamic vocalization including duo vocalization on parts, and great lyrics that flow. When I saw Nada Surf in Austin, Matthew Caws explained how this song is about ghosts from the past looking on those in the present. But he was quick to clarify that it was not in a scary way! But more in a way of time passing. It's an interesting message for a track. If you give it a shot. I am sure it will become one of your favorites too! Up next, "Whose Authority" is another one of those powerful Nada Surf songs that just soar in their catalog. It's a rock song to be sure, especially with the overdriven guitars, great bass, and drums. But its much more melodic than just your average rock song. The lyrics and melody are great here because the song builds so well to the chorus. One thing I particularly want to call out here is the harmonization of the vocals on this track. It's great, in fact bands that want to utilize more dynamic harmonization in their songs should look to Nada Surf. I don't know many bands that do it better.
"Beautiful Beat" is another of my favorites on this album. It has such a great chorus, with the melody blending seamlessly with the vocals. The song also does a number of shifts throughout that keeps the listener engaged. "Are You Lightning" is such an interesting track from Nada Surf because has a bit of a twang (on the leads) to it which is so unlike anything Nada Surf does. It also has the pronounced bass lines and drums that are isolated with the vocals that just make everything pop. There are other examples of where Nada Surf pulls this isolation tactic, but I'm not sure they are pulled off in such a unique way as they are here. I want to close this album with "Ice on the Wing" because of its dynamic chorus. It is another one of those hooks where the band is just dialed in and I have trouble finding many choruses better when viewed holistically.
Tracks to Start With - "See these Bones", "Whose Authority", "Beautiful Beat", "Are You Lightning", "I Like What You Say", and "Ice on the Wing".
The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy (2013) - The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy (great title by the way) starts with "Clear Eye Clouded Mind" where we see Nada Surf kicking it up a gear tempo-wise. They play blisteringly fast and it works. It's an evolution of their sound yet again, but their are periods where they break it down for isolated drums that through juxtaposition highlight just how fast they're playing. Again, (you have found me saying this a lot) the chorus is great and breaks with the faster verses to make it more pronounced. It's an absolute masterclass in songwriting both musically and lyrically.
"Waiting for Something" sounds like it belongs on The Weight is a Gift, but if you listen to the backing guitars, it doesn't quite. "When I was Young" gives the listener a break from the breakneck speed with which the album has gotten off to. It's slower acoustic and features Caws delicately singing...That is until the chorus comes where the band kicks it up a notch with some great electric guitar work and vocalization. There's a slow burn to this, it doesn't happen until about 2:00 minutes in. I absolutely love this section of the song because it's so different from anything else on the album. There's also some lead guitar work to close down shop with, you'll dig it, trust me. In "Looking Through", Nada Surf find a balance between quick burner rock song and low-key track, particularly through the vocals. It's another unique one that's definitely worth your time.
Tracks to Start With - "Clear Eye Clouded Mind", "Waiting for Something", "When I Was Young" "Teenage Dreams" and "Looking Through".
You Know Who You Are (2016) - We kick off with "Cold to See Clear", which is probably my favorite song from the album. It starts slow, but picks up quickly (less than 50 seconds in). This is another track where Nada Surf plays with tempo a lot. They have sections where they're burning the strings on their guitars, while other parts are slower to highlight the different elements of every part of the track. One thing that I want to mention about this track is that the drums are so prominent on it. With "Believe Your Mine", the band slow it down a bit. The slow burn build on this track is beautiful. When it finally reaches the chorus it's so worth the wait. Melodically, the bass plays an integral part throughout shifting all over the place.
"Out of the Dark" plays bright and has a tinge of nostalgia to it. It evokes comps to more 90's alt (which Nada Surf was obviously a part of). One aspect of the song that makes it pop is the use of horns throughout. They complement the upbeat acoustic beat perfectly and help lift it where it needs it. It was a perfect addition and represents another evolution in Nada Surf's sound. It also has a bright message at heart of the song with lyrics like: "You don't have to run around a park / You don't have to be some kind of hero / But it'd be good to get out of the dark / And get yourself around some other people".
Tracks to Start With - "Cold to See Clear", "Believe Your Mine", "Friend Hospital", "Out of the Dark", "Rushing", and "Gold Sounds".
Well, those are all the studio albums by Nada Surf that they released after High/Low. Though it's important to note they also released some live albums (Live in Brussels, Myspace Transmissions, and Live at the Neptune Theatre). They also released a cover album (if I had a hi-fi), and finally they released a b-side release simply titled b-sides. What I'm trying to emphasize here is there is no shortage of Nada Surf material and while it may seem daunting, I hope this article helps you dive in. Because it's just worth it. Few bands play with as much heart and emotion as Nada Surf. I've personally witnessed this in their live performances and felt it by being moved through their studio work. With all this in mind, go out there in dive into the greatness that is Nada Surf!