It is time for our Sunday piece, Presented with Comment, where each week Michael and Nicholas La Torre take a turn engaging in a debate over alt topics of interest and gauging the audience's views on the issues at hand. To do this, the authors will present examples to support their opinions and not only get the audience's view on the two sides presented, but seek feedback from the audience on alternatives as well.
Today's topic is who is alt's best cult band? That is, those bands that have cult followings who may not have breakthrough mainstream success but have carved out a significant and extremely dedicated following through hard work, quality music, and extensive touring.
Who is the best cult band in my opinion? None other than Nada Surf of course. First I want to dispel the common mentality around the group. When you first hear someone say "Nada Surf" I'm sure your first thought is:
While some say that this is there "best" song, I would argue those people have only heard that song. While it was certainly their most popular (pun totally intended), I would argue that it is my least favorite in their entire discography (this is likely due to the aforementioned people who only know that song). That's right, I count myself among the cult following of Nada Surf and we are legion! Umm...I mean we're very passionate.
What I would like to do is highlight a song or two from each of their albums to show you how talented Nada Surf truly is. They are a band that has matured as they have progressed in their career. So with that let's get started!
high/low - "Zen Brain" (1996)
"Zen Brain" would be the track from High/Low that foreshadowed the signature mellow alt/rock sound that Nada Surf would develop as they matured. The rest of the album features harder, faster, tracks which are fine, but not nearly on the level of their later work. "Zen Brain" though, it could easily appear on the band's later albums.
Other tracks to check out: "Stalemate"
The Proximity Effect - "Amateur" (1998)
In the two years between high/low and The Proximity Effect the band's sound developed significantly. Lead singer Matthew Caws vocals became more polished and melodic (this has evolved to where I would argue he has among the most melodic voices in alt). Still prevalent in "Amateur" is Caws' guitar work which never really gets lost throughout the band's career, it just evolves with time. This song also displays Caws' fantastic lyrical work where he describes depression unlike any other artist I have ever seen, but it's done so damn accurately.
Other tracks to check out: "Hyperspace" "80 Windows" and "Bad Best Friend"
Let Go - "Inside of Love" (2002)
If you ever watched How I Met Your Mother you probably remember Ted sitting on a rooftop with Robin and a fantastic alt song comes over the scene. That would be "Inside of Love" by Nada Surf and it is truly a masterpiece of a tune. Musically the song sets up the vocals and lyrics perfectly and Caws just dominates the song with a track that feels like a love song, but it's really not. "Inside of Love" is a song about longing, wanting love, not experiencing it. That's what makes it so great, to those that don't listen carefully, they just assume it's a love song.
Other tracks to check out: "Blonde on Blonde", "Happy Kid", and "Blizzard of '77".
The Weight is A Gift - "What is Your Secret" (2005)
Let Go was the album where Nada Surf displayed their fully matured sound. The Weight is a gift is where they ran with it. "What is Your Secret shows Nada Surf's signature ability to be able to be hyper melodic, but being able to combine faster melodies and slower melodies all within the same song. They love to do this in their music and it is fantastic to hear. It gives a signature sound that few artists have.
Other tracks to check out: "Always Love", "Blankest Year", "Your Legs Grow"
Lucky - "See These Bones" (2008)
If you were to only give me one song to sway you to Nada Surf fandom, it would be "See These Bones". This song has all the elements of Nada Surfs work, melodic vocals and guitars, harmonies for days, brilliant lyrics, and multiple vocal parts happening simultaneously. You might be thinking "This sounds like a mess of sound" I would first say "Watch your tongue!" (just kidding) but honestly it really isn't its like the gears on a clock moving simultaneously to make it work, without one the whole thing falls apart.
Other tracks to check out: "Whose Authority", "I Like What You Say", and "Ice on the Wing"
The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy - "Waiting for Something" (2012)
On The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy we see a couple of aspects of Nada Surf's sound highlighted, especially in the track "Waiting for Something". First smart lyrics, the second verse timing-wise and lyrically is just brilliant:
Hard to hold
I'm looking for it now and will be when I'm old
Whoever put that fist in the square must have been a good friend to the mayor
Driving by Spanish roundabout art it's gotta be who you know
How Caws' fits all of those lyrics into that space is just an amazing display of lyrical talent and vocal ability. The best part is it works so well! Additionally, this track contrasts simpler lyrical choruses with more complex lyrical verses.
Finally we see Nada Surf making use of their over driven guitars that are still melodic and push the track forward. It creates a pace that makes the song work and when the group pushes fast enough, they'll often slow it down. Nada Surf is just so tight with pacing and melody.
Other tracks to check out: "Clear Eye Clouded Mind", "When I Was Young" and "Teenage Dreams"
You Know Who You Are - "Cold to See Clear" (2016)
"Cold to See Clear" sees Nada Surf experiment with vocal effects (to maintain the melody), the choice is smart and works and positions the vocals and the music parallel from one another. While separate, they both move together in sync which works really well. The drums also star in this track as they do in many Nada Surf songs, they are active in pushing the melody forward.
Other tracks to check out: "Friend Hospital" and "Believe Your Mine"
Now that we have shown what Nada Surf is all about and how they are so much more than their most famous song "Popular". it's easier to see why people gravitate toward them and they have the following they do. It's also important to note that the band is absolutely terrific live, we know from experience and both Nicholas and myself have seen them live (as well as the band he will be arguing for, but no spoilers today!). So it's safe to say we both have well rounded perspectives on this issue.
Another thing that is cool to mention about Nada Surf is the laid back nature they have with their fans. During most shows when they finish, they will go to the back and interact with fans, sign autographs, take selfies, talk politics, etc. I also heard a story where a father bought his 16 year old daughter a ticket to a show that was at an 18 and up bar (he was not aware of this at the time he said). She was of course denied at the door and when the father told Nada Surf's management of the situation, Matthew Caws came out and played a couple of songs for her acoustically.
I've stated it many times, I believe that Nada Surf is the must underrated band in alt music. With songs like the ones I have highlighted above, I hope I have maybe converted a couple of you into Nada Surf followers, come join the group we have cookies.
We'll pick up next week with Nicholas' perspective.