Nada Surf’s “Lucky”

Feb 8, 2008 2:46pm

Nada Surf are still probably most famous for their 1996 hit “Popular,” a song which listed off ways to remain hip as a high school student.  Somehow is managed to imitate both Weezer and King Missile at the same time.  Its success allowed their debut, “High/Low” sell reasonably well.  Two years later however, upon the chilly European reception of their second album “The Proximity Effect,” they were dropped by their label, Elektra.  (“The Proximity Effect has since been re-released, and is considered an under-appreciated masterpiece.)  After licking their wounds, Nada Surf reappeared in 2003 with “Let Go,” an album which won them something they never had before – critical acclaim.  On “Let Go,” the members of Nada Surf established themselves as sensitive songsmiths in the vein of other acts like their friends Death Cab For Cutie , only with less bothersome lyrical tendencies.  Hipsters marveled at the band’s transition like it was completely unexpected, but for those of us who’d been fans of “The Proximity Effect,” it was evident that the band was indeed capable of greatness.  “The Weight is a Gift” followed in 2006.  Like its predecessor it was also rather well-received and it showed an increasingly mellow, intelligently reflective band.  It was a far cry from “Popular,” but it established them as a band to look up to.  “Lucky” continues the trend.  The Brooklyn-based band rarely rock out the way they did on their first two records, but that’s not really important, because they have morphed into a delicately introspective music machine.  This is the kind of record you listen to while lying on your bed thinking things over.  Singer Matthew Caws’ voice has a sad tone to it, which makes the slower songs sound all the more epic.  The double-time waltz of “Weightless” for instance would be a perfect radio hit if Nada Surf still had radio hits.  It would also be good in the midst of an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.” The same could be true of the opener “See These Bones,” where Caws sings “Everyone’s right and no one is sorry. / That’s the start and the end of the story.”  Those lines pretty much set the mood for the record –  dead serious with moments of tragic beauty. First single, “Whose Authority” is just anthemic enough to stick with you all day.  The members of Nada Surf have become masters of musical subtlety, and they rarely rock out anymore, which means that they remain in a mid-tempo realm for the majority of the time.  But they have also managed to find a way to be mellow but never boring or sleepy. “Beautiful Beat” is a lush example of the band at the peak of their powers.  Lush orchestration throughout, Caws harmonizes with himself with his expansive vocal range.  Radio should be begging for songs like this.  It’s a track that sounds pretty and polished but not over-produced.  The song is somehow simultaneously sunny and sad sounding.  It’s one of the best things the band has ever recorded.  “Here Goes Something” is a two minute acoustic jam.   ”Are You Lightening?” is quiet and gentle with a touch of alt-country influence in the guitar work.  “I Like What You Say” starts off slow and then picks up quite nicely in typical Nada Surf fashion.  It’s destined to be a single and a hit at live shows.
Something unusual happens towards the end of the disc, because the songs begin to pick up.  “From Now On” and “Ice on the Wing” are both strong, sudden doses of power-pop.  The second of those two tracks shows the band’s unusual sophistication, ending with a small, classically tinged brass chorus.       But then this gives way to the intense, almost eerie, beat-driven workout, “The Fox.”  This is a spooky standout, with drummer Ira Elliot’s highly syncopated drumming taking center stage. Later, the piece is punctuated by a dramatic string section.  The album ends with the sparse, sweetly haunting “The Film Did Not Go ‘Round.”  It plays like some sort of back-porch lullaby.  If you manage to get a copy of this album from the first pressing, you’ll get a four song EP with acoustic versions of “Whose Authority” and “I Like What You Say,” as well as the bonus tracks “I Wanna Take You Home” (featuring background vocals from 90′s rock goddess Juliana Hatfield) and the hard-rocking “Everyone’s on Tour.”  If both of these tracks had been on the regular album, they would’ve been highlights.  “Lucky” is an excellent record.  It’s the work of an underestimated, under appreciated band worthy of notice.  It continues the thread Nada Surf have been working all along.  The truth is, they have never released a bad album.  Even “High/Low” plays better today than it probably did when it came out in ’96.  If you have never heard a Nada Surf record, and this sounds good to you, you should pick up one of their older albums as well.  You should especially pick up “The Proximity Effect,” listen to the tracks “Hyperspace,” “Amateur,” “Bad Best Friend” and “Firecracker” and think about the people at Elektra who reportedly thought that the album didn’t have a single.  That album would be an all-out classic if more people heard it.  Hopefully someone is slapping him/herself over that poor decision.
It’s amazing that Nada Surf used to get comparisons to Weezer.  Now they sound nothing like each other.  Nada Surf deserve respect.  We may not have all seen such potential in ’96, but they quickly blossomed into one of today’s smartest bands.

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