'I know you. Aren't you in the Eagles?' So began my only conversation with Ira Elliot, drummer with Nada Surf. Despite the none-too-subtle mockery, he turned out to be a real gentleman, and during our five minutes of quality time together we talked about their one big hit. He went on to talk about how, as a young band, they'd been forced to record some covers when the label hadn't heard a single on their next album.
During an early 2010 Nada Surf concert, singer/guitarist Matthew Caws attempted to explain the genesis of the group’s new covers album, If I Had a Hi-Fi. Caws regaled the sold-out audience with the tale of a band which sought to knock off something mindless after a year-long touring cycle and ended up crafting a record that’s more ambitious than their original studio albums by a half step. The extra hours in the studio have yielded one of the most informative and ornately produced covers albums in recent memory.
Forever a tribute band On their sixth album, Nada Surf repurposes a dozen songs from inside and outside pop music’s canon. Covers, of course, are always fraught with peril, and at times singer/guitarist Matthew Caws’ inflection has a way of fermenting the source material’s latent cheese. On the synth-less “Enjoy the Silence,” he over-enunciates some of Depeche Mode’s most ironically banal lyrics: “Words are meaningless / And forgettable.” But on “Love and Anger,” a ballad originally energized by Kate Bush’s octave-bending trill, he belts the melody to better effect.
On If I Had a Hi-Fi, Nada Surf accomplishes the rare feat of producing a covers album that won't just waste space on your CD shelf. In fact, the album wants for, rather demands, repeated listening. First off, Nada Surf has good taste-the New York indie veterans take on songs by Depeche Mode, Dwight Twilley, Kate Bush, Arthur Russell, The Go-Betweens, and the vastly underrated and under-recognized Bill Fox, among others.
There's something about a band recording an album of covers that sends up a red flag in the minds of many listeners, as if the musicians are acknowledging they've run out of ideas and must sift through other folks' material in order to pad out their repertoire. This might seem particularly troubling to fans of Nada Surf, since their continued existence after the flash-in-the-pan success of "Popular" in 1996 has had so much to do with their growing strength as idiosyncratic pop songwriters, but for whatever reason, the group has chosen to interpret the work of 12 other acts on their sixth studio album, If I Had a Hi-Fi, and they've done it in a way that avoids sounding like a holding action. Nada Surf have certainly become more comfortable and accomplished in the studio a decade-and-a-half since making their first record, and If I Had a Hi-Fi is as impressive a piece of studio craft as the band has created to date.
For most artists, a covers album serves either as an opportunity to pay tribute to key influences or as a chance to showcase interpretive skills. For indie-pop trio Nada Surf, their set of cover tunes, If I Had a Hi-Fi, seems less likely a tribute than an excuse to show off their tastes. To their credit, the band’s taste is pretty exceptional, and it’s their unconventional choices of material that make If I Had a Hi-Fi a worthwhile project and not just simple hipster posturing.
A surprising and emphatic success of a covers collection. Daniel Ross 2010 Rather than attempting to distil all of their influences into one covers record, major label rejects-turned independent mainstays Nada Surf have chosen to capture the songs that were, as you might expect, in their hi-fis at the time of recording. Consequently and unlike most covers records, If I Had a Hi-Fi (which, rather neatly, is a palindrome) sounds wonderfully fresh and easy, but also yields some unexpected pop trinkets.