Saturday, March 3, 2012
Bottom of the Hill
Better than: The high school graduation test.
Four songs into a fevered, triumphant set at Bottom of the Hill on Saturday, Cloud Nothings' Dylan Baldi stopped playing and said hello: "I'm glad we're playing an all-ages show, because that means I'm legally allowed in the venue," he quipped, raising chuckles around the crowded room.
Baldi is all of 20, but you wouldn't have known it from the music. On Saturday, his band filled its sold-out show with the restless, conflicted, and grudgingly maturing songs from its third album, Attack on Memory. Previous Cloud Nothings records sounded exactly like what they were -- an 18-year-old Baldi channeling everyday frustrations into three-chord pop-punk recorded in his parents' basement -- but Attack on Memory is bigger, darker, and more nuanced. The Steve Albini-produced album is so different from past Cloud Nothings stuff that Baldi considered changing the name of the Cleveland band for its release.
The new music is more developed, but it is not sedate. Baldi and his three-piece band started off with the driving "Stay Useless," a song about wanting to step off the fast train to Real Responsibility that has a chorus your body absorbs like water on a warm afternoon. It's a snappy, snotty, and gloriously satisfying insta-chant about saying "fuck it" to the serious stuff. So, naturally, a rolling boil of a moshpit started up in front of the stage.
From there, Cloud Nothings moved between Attack on Memory's shorter, catchier songs, and the places on the album in which the band stretches its legs through simmering instrumental passages. The latter moments were often more interesting, partly because they're the newest thing this band is doing, and because they sounded clear and powerful through Bottom of the Hill's muscular P.A. The rises and falls of the nine-minute "Wasted Days" -- as big an indicator as any of how far this band has come -- made for a highlight of the set.
Baldi has shown he's a gifted craftsman with the new songs, and his band proved tight and unfussy in replicating them onstage. But his vocals are still a hit-or-miss piece of Cloud Nothings' sound. At times, Baldi gives a Cobainesque rasp to voice his voice that can push things into a thrilling sense of overdrive. But when he deploys that rasp more casually, or too frequently, it comes across like a crutch. Occasionally, if his voice gets too nasally, Baldi still sounds like an entitled teenager whining about why he doesn't get a larger allowance. And it's unlikely that he'll be able to shred his voice onstage every night for more than a couple of years.
Still, "a couple of years" is probably not on his mind right now. Baldi just launched his pop-punk project into the realm of Serious Music, with a set of big, hard-rocking songs that rank among the best loud guitar music released so far this year. And on a normal night, he still couldn't get inside the S.F. club he just sold out.
Personal bias: Never found myself won over by the earlier Cloud Nothings stuff, and didn't much care for the band's live show when I saw it in Austin last year. My, how things change.
You know it's a good show when: The bartender nods enthusiastically along with the music as he pours another Anchor Steam.