OK, first the elephant in the room — yes, Steve Albini produced Cloud Nothings’ Attack on Memory. Few studio engineers can consistently construct a sound so distinct and desired that their name in the production credits overshadows the artist themselves. Clearly sensitive to that topic, Cloud Nothings’ Dylan Baldi was quick to remind the public that Albini was busy enough with distractions in his studio (including Facebook scrabble and his food blog) that his influence on Attack on Memory might be overstated. “I don’t even know if he remembers what our album sounds like.”
Well, it sounds like an Steve Albini album, for starters. His records have a distinct aural atmosphere that you immediately recognize on Attack on Memory — drums that detonate with that signature attack and delay, serrated guitar melodies, and raw-throated vocals that rip through the mic. He’s famous for being the guy whom rock bands seek out because they want to get their sound right — not “glossy” or “lo-fi,” but clear, raw, and intimate in a “you’re-sitting-in-a-small-room-listening-to-us-play” sort of way.
But while Albini has been behind the helm of some indie rock milestones (Surfer Rosa, Rid of Me, and In Utero), his name on your sleeve is by no means a golden ticket. Albini has produced over a thousand records for bands that never make it out of obscurity — in fact, he prefers to work with relatively “unknown” musicians (For just $700 a day, you too can employ his services.) What he’s really good at is making bands sound like themselves, which is awesome if they happen to be talented and capable of writing good songs. Cloud Nothings, fortunately, is both.
On early records, Cloud Nothings’ Dylan Baldi could create catchy, slightly askew garage rock in his parents’ basement that recalled the lo-fi charm and pop blitzkrieg of the Wipers and the late great Jay Reatard. Attack on Memory twists that formula into a muscular knot of white-knuckled discontent. “Wasted Days” sounds like bouncy post-punk for a couple verses and choruses then takes a dramatic left turn into a sonic maelstrom when Baldi tacks on six minutes of violent guitars and screaming centered around a furiously repeated proclamation “I thought/I would/Be more/Than this.”
For a 20-year old whose accomplished so much, it’s a startling statement. Gone are the awkward teenage missives of Cloud Nothings‘s “Understand At All” and “Forget You All the Time.” Baldi has prefaced the new album’s name as “an attack on the memory of what people thought the band was.” I don’t pretend to know Baldi’s private life, but in the last year, something must have gotten seriously fucked up; his adolescent angst has metamorphasized into a full-blown fury. Then again, if you lived in Cleveland, odds are you’d be writing songs about your own personal apocalypse, too.
“No Future/No Past” builds like a thundercloud until a seismic chord shift hits three- quarters of way through, much like the math-rock climax of “Breadcrumb Trail” by Slint, another one of Albini’s legendary customers. It’s ferocious, punishing and unapologetically bare. Baldi’s pop songwriting talent is still on full display on tracks like “Fall In” and “Cut You” which wrap strangled, barbed-wire riffs around taut melodic hooks. But beneath it, Baldi is seething with rage and jealousy as he teases a former lover: “Does he hurt you like I do/Is he gonna work out?” It sounds half like a taunt and half like Baldi will fall apart if the answer is yes. His conclusion “I miss you cuz I like damage/I need something I can hurt” is made all the more alarming by its position as “Cut You’s” sing-along chorus.
Then there’s “Stay Useless,” an indie slacker anthem in the vein of Pavement’s “Summer Babe,” Dinosaur Jr.’s “Freak Scene” and Superchunk’s “Slack Motherfucker” — it’s garbled, self-deprecating, and insidiously catchy. “I need time/To stay useless” is one of the wittier, more caustic demands you’ll hear all year. Attack on Memory would barely be consumable in one sitting if it weren’t for this sort of black humor and its 33-minute run time.
Cloud Nothings was jangly guitar pop that was almost giddy in its misery, but Attack on Memory is something much harder to contain. Albini’s open, flooded sound feels endless — an artifact of instruments bleeding over from one carefully placed microphone to another, rather than being laid down on multiple tracks. Baldi has come to rely not just on his pop songwriting sensibilities but on an emotionally bleak core as a way to fuel Cloud Nothings — something that Albini can tap into with his scorched earth production values. In this case, pretty may sell, but ugly leaves a lasting impression. Attack on Memory is something that remains with you long after the first listen.