Eight albums into their career, Nada Surf are more quietly impressive than ever. Not quiet in a musical sense, as their music is often driven by saturated, beefy distorted guitars, but in a low-key, no-bullshit kind of way that’s best demonstrated by their live shows, in which they smash through one song after another with no extended jams and no self-indulgent between-song waffle.
The band formed in New York in 1992 as a collaboration between singer-guitarist Matthew Caws and bassist Daniel Lorca, who had gone to the same French-language school together (the families of both spent time in France and Belgium when they were kids). After a couple of false starts, they found drummer Ira Elliott and began recording low-budget EPs and playing shows. At one such show at the Knitting Factory, they ran into former Cars singer Ric Ocasek, who was by then an in-demand producer (his production discography includes the Bad Brains’ Rock for Light and Weezer’s Blue Album), and gave him one of their self-released cassettes. Ocasek later called the band to say he wanted to produce their first album, which no doubt helped to get them hooked up with Elektra.
Problem was, while their debut scored a hit, it did so in the form of Popular, a sub-Weezer novelty in which Caws recites advice from the 1964 guide for teenage girls on how to achieve popularity in an increasingly hysterical voice. Having not heard it at the time (it wasn’t really a thing in the UK), I’ve got to say, it’s as bad as it sounds. Worse, it pegged them for many as a derivative or even a novelty band; better not to have a mainstream hit at all than to have one that will follow you around like a bad smell for the next ten years. By the early noughties, the band members were back to working day jobs.
With admirable persistence, they set about rebuilding. After getting themselves a deal with solid indie Barsuk (John Vanderslice, Death Cab, Rilo Kiley), they released three super-solid power-pop albums in a row: Let Go, The Weight is a Gift and Lucky. Power pop is not a cool style of music, especially at the moment, but it’s one I’ve always had a huge soft spot for, and Nada Surf are great at it. Matthew Caws has a sweet and supple voice, his songs always have strong melodies and big choruses, and the rhythm section supply the “power” side of things admirably. As does the fact that Caws knows how to get a sweet guitar sound with his Les Paul Custom.
Jules and Jim is from 2012’s The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy, which took the band’s winning streak to four. The song is an Alex Chilton-ish minor classic, with one of their most glorious choruses. Although, really, it’s just one hook after another. The band are now a four-piece (when playing live, at least) with the addition of guitarist Doug Gillard, also of Guided by Voices, and when I saw at the Electric Ballroom a few years ago and Gillard and Caws struck up the song’s chiming harmonised intro, it was total Big Star-in-1972 jangle heaven.