Tag Archives: Nada Surf

Jules and Jim – Nada Surf

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.

Matthew Caws @ The Islington/Randy Newman @ the Royal Festival Hall

Two gigs in 48 hours, in venues as vastly different as is possible.

On Saturday night I went with Mel and Sara to see Matthew Caws from Nada Surf play a free show at the Islington, announced via his Instagram the day before. The Islington is a tiny venue, with a capacity of maybe 100. I’ve played drums there with Sumner, and it was the place I saw Jon Auer play a wonderful set in August 2014.

It was a really great night. I’m not yet that familiar with his work, although I’ve heard most of Nada Surf’s records, and Get There, the record he made with Juliana Hatfield as Minor Alps. It’s a testament to the quality of his writing, then, that I recognised tracks like See These Bones, Maxon, Your Legs Grow, Ice on the Wing and Always Love in a stripped down, voice-and-guitar setting having heard the recorded originals no more than a few times each.

Nada Surf passed me by in their early years – I know they had a big MTV hit with Popular, but I’ve not knowingly heard it; if he had played it on Saturday, I wouldn’t have recognised it. At this stage of his career, Caws is a world away from MTV Beach House, son-of-Weezerisms. Without getting ponderous or self-serious, his songs have become deeper and richer, his voice remains supple and boyish, and his impressive guitar playing (several songs switched between neat fingerpicking and flatpick strumming) is all he really needs to put the songs over; See These Bones, the last song he played on Saturday, was no less impressive than its recorded counterpart, with nothing lost in translation from full band to solo arrangement.

If it wasn’t quite the experience for me that seeing Jon Auer was, that’s only because I don’t have the long relationship with Matthew Caws’s music that I have with Auer’s work with the Posies. Sara, who is a long-time fan, had a similar experience that I had with the Auer gig, I think, and Mel, who wasn’t familiar with him at all, left intrigued and wanting to hear more.

*

On Monday night, I headed to the rather more august Royal Festival Hall with James and Dan McKean to see Randy Newman.

I’ve not seen too many shows by real veterans. The old guys I see tend to be 40- or 50-something, not 70-something like Newman. His voice, never smooth in his youth, is now a somewhat limited instrument. The effect of this was the opposite of what you might expect. It gave his ballads a fragility that was at times heartbreaking – She Chose Me (a song from Steve Bochco’s Cop Rock, of all things) was a genuine goosebump moment – but hampered the delivery of the ragtimey, satirical songs, which were more declaimed than sung, with the phrasing lacking just a little of the subtlety of the originals.

However, this was a set lasting over two hours (with a 20-minute interval), with time for Newman to play some 30-odd songs (and give us a lot of, uniformly hilarious, anecdotes), and the duds were few and far between. There weren’t many top-tier Newman songs that didn’t get an airing: I Miss You, God’s Song, I Think It’s Going to Rain Today, I Love LA, Birmingham, Marie, Short People, You’ve Got a Friend in Me, Political Science, You Can Leave Your Hat On, Losing You, the stupendous Louisiana 1927, Sail Away, and even the seldom-performed Rednecks (because of its use of the N-word; Newman took pains to explain the character and perspective he adopts within the song, which is something he doesn’t otherwise do).

Shorn of their band arrangements, some of the songs did fall a little flat. I adore I Love LA and have defended its parent album here, but without that triumphant synth riff and triumphalist backing vocals, the song is not what it could otherwise be. Similarly, My Life is Good without the blowhard’s increasingly agitated protests at the end (“My life is good, you old bag!”) as the music gets subtly more dissonant is only half the song. Why not forgo it and play something more suited to a voice-and-piano presentation, like Dayton, Ohio-1903 or He Gives Us All His Love?

Minor quibbles, really.

James once said to me, about the experience of watching Paul McCartney, that after a while, you just stand there in amazement that one man wrote all these songs, and that one man is standing up there singing them. That’s how Monday was for me. I’d give pretty much anything to write a song as good as Louisiana 1927. Hell, to write Short People, even. Newman is one of the greatest, a guy that pretty much every songwriter looks up to in the knowledge that they can’t play on the turf he’s playing on. I got to see him, playing all those songs. It was quite something.

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This guy