Pop Addict: Nada Surf’s The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy

Every other Thursday, Pop Addict presents infectious tunes from contemporary musicians across indie rock, pop, folk, electronica, and more.

Nada Surf: The Stars are Indifferent to AstronomyNada Surf: The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy (Barsuk, 1/24/12)

Nada Surf: “Waiting for Something”

[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Nada_Surf_Waiting_for_Something.mp3|titles=Nada Surf: “Waiting for Something”]

The first thing that people usually think of when they hear the words “Nada Surf” is the mid-’90s post-grunge gem “Popular.” The track seemed to encapsulate everything that alternative rock in the ’90s stood for into a three-minute radio hit: humor, irony, hooks, cheekiness, and distortion. (It also helped that MTV played the music video nonstop.) And the band deserved the, well, popularity. The song was clever and catchy as hell. But, as is the case with many bands of that era who still had good songs/albums besides their hit (see: Superdrag, Better Than Ezra), Nada Surf has spent the rest of its career trying to get as far away as possible from that song.

To belittle the entire career of Nada Surf to a mere three minutes of one hit in the ’90s is completely unfair, though. Even though the band has lived in the shadow of “Popular” for the majority of its career, Nada Surf has quietly and steadily been putting out an array of solid garage-rock/power-pop-infused records. The Proximity Effect, from 1999, still hinted at the humor that “Popular” touched upon, but the album showed natural growth, with lyrics revolving around more “adult” problems, like seeking out a therapist or the emotional bankruptcy of living too fast. The album’s lyrical honesty and vulnerability is on par with Weezer’s Pinkerton.

By the time Let Go rolled around in 2003, Nada Surf had completely detached itself from the snot-nosed teenage angst of its lone hit single. Instead, a matured, weathered, broken, and fixed Nada Surf was at the helm, endorsing the same power-pop sensibilities it had on previous records, but now with added layers of acoustics, synthesizers, harmonies, and deeper, more meaningful songwriting. The Weight Is A Gift (2005) and Lucky (2008) followed in a similar (though slightly more watered down) fashion.

And that brings us to The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy. Once again, the New York-based trio has found its voice in a barrage of ’90s nostalgic alt-rock, fused with more refined musical techniques and textures. The appropriately titled “Teenage Dreams” treads familiar water with its distorted, minor-chord arrangements, reminiscent of the band’s roots, while “When I Was Young” features a delicate finger-picking pattern. The album also showcases the band’s signature wall of sound, which is a staple of the band’s live shows.

But there aren’t any Trojan horses here. There aren’t any mazes or trap doors. This album confirms that Nada Surf knows what it’s doing, and it’s been doing it all along: churning out up-tempo, hook-riddled rock songs. The tracks more or less blend together into one nostalgic heap of ’90s bliss and misery, but the album moves along smooth and steadily, anchored by singer/guitarist Matthew Caws’ distinctive tenor.

The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy might not be the breakout comeback to take Nada Surf to the top of the charts like its debut did, but the band seems content with that. It knows its territory, and it knows it’s good at it. It’s refreshing to hear an album every now and then that isn’t trying to turn genres on their head, or revolt against convention out of boredom. Above all, the album feels genuine. Honesty has always been a strong suit of Nada Surf, and that quality is once again present on The Stars.

But what it really boils down to is this: If you’re familiar with the band’s last few albums, you know what to expect (poppy rock songs that can every now and then snap your heart strings in half). If all you know is “Popular,” maybe it’s time to give the band another shot. Nada Surf has much more to offer than you might think — and much more to offer than it gets credit for.

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