“But indie rock was once the bastion of misfits and weirdos!” says the stuck-in-the-mud curmudgeon you wish would stop talking to you. But he has a point. For everything that’s good about the contemporary indie landscape, you still gotta wonder what an outcast like Paul Westerberg would have to say about indie’s nascent fashion sense. We already have an idea of what Steve Albini would say. As Cloud Nothings, Dylan Baldi is doing his small part in keeping indie rock lame. His music is old-fashioned (circa 1995), guitar-driven, and unabashedly suburban. Funny, then, that his poorly recorded, enthusiastically played power pop has found such a warm place in the hearts of the blogerati. Funny, also, that this EP — Leave You Forever — is coming out on True Panther Sounds, home of such endlessly-hip acts as Glasser and Teengirl Fantasy.
The songs on this EP seem, initially, like traditional indie rock — the “ooh-ooh-oohs,” the scraping guitars, the lo-fi nature. But don’t be fooled: This stuff is more Promise Ring than Pavement. First there are the lyrics, which function just as they should for the purposes of Baldi’s power pop. They’re simple, transparent, and for the most part about girls. (The rare exception being “Weird Son,” which may or may not be about familial dysfunction. Can’t imagine Baldi’s parents being too pleased with his dropping out of college to pursue Cloud Nothings full-time.) Then there are those super-earnest, super-emo background yelps, which echo nearly every chorus. (Baldi himself? His frustrated best friend unleashing some adorable adolescent angst? Whoever’s doing the equally awesome emo yelps on Japandroids’ single series? Impossible to tell.) Baldi’s vocals, too, are of the bratty pop-punk variety, although he pulls them off without sounding like an asshole (unlike Wavves, for whom that asshole-ishness is all part of the charm).
Baldi’s (relatively) earlier work sounded awful, but in a good way. A song like “Old Street” sounded like the ghost of a once-loved tune. Here, Baldi raises the fidelity to a frustrating midpoint — not lo-fi enough to be aesthetically interesting, and not clean enough to make these songs stick. It may be a pleasant blur, but it’s nonetheless a blur; everything is de-emphasized. “You Were Scared” has the makings of a top-notch indie-rock ballad, but the details — the ringing guitar, the glockenspiel — are muddled in the mix. What’s a perfect pop song without the perfect details?
I’d like to say how this EP has boundless potential (which it does), how once Baldi gets himself situated in a real studio he’ll have all the resources to bring his fierce power-pop visions to life. But Baldi’s already talking about how his full-length will probably sound very little like his recorded output up to this point. He’s 18, after all. A lot can change in a year. Leave You Forever, then, is of a piece with what came before it, the raw materials for a stunning debut that may never actually sound the way some of us want it to.