Release Date: Mar 4, 2016
Record label: Barsuk
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Nada Surf are an anomaly. They emerged in the mid Nineties with the summer anthem ‘Popular’. Something of a novelty song, Matthew Caws' sarcastic vocal delivery called out high schoolers in a droll hooky fashion. In every respect it could have made the band a classic contender for the one hit wonder tag.
Intentionally or not, the cover image on You Know Who You Are, the latest album by veteran pop group Nada Surf, forms a pentagon, the shape intimately familiar to baseball fans the world over as signifying home plate. To expand that metaphor a bit, the correlation is a perfect representation for the music this New York-based band releases on the regular. Even as the lyrics express romantic distress and longing, there’s a warm familiarity and comfort to the quartet’s chiming guitars, robust rhythm section and leader Matthew Caws’ charmingly baleful croon.
Have you ever read a Nada Surf album review that doesn't mention 'Popular'? No, me neither. Oh well. To recap, then: after Nada Surf's 1996 giganta-hit 'Popular', they quickly disappeared from mainstream attention. Those that stuck with them, however, have witnessed a band quietly and diligently building one of the most distinguished songbooks in American jangle.
New York’s Nada Surf have been honing their sparky power-pop since 1992, so it’s no surprise that this sixth full-lengther – for which former Guided By Voices guitarist Doug Gillard has been added to the line-up – is a well-drilled exercise in slick, sumptuous songwriting. Opening with the shimmering strains of Cold To Clear and its powerful burst of feel-good optimism, You Know Who You Are is a record, appropriately enough, that brims with confidence, but which also runs the gamut of human emotion. There’s the sad, minor-chord nostalgia of Believe You’re Mine, the even more dour lament of Friend Hospital and the panicked surge of New Bird, which almost sounds like REM at their feistiest.
On Nada Surf's eighth album You Know Who You Are, Matthew Caws and his veteran band continue to prove that they haven't forgotten what they do best even after 24 years together. The album is full of catchy guitar rock anthems that recall their '90s alt-rock heyday but also showcases some of the maturity and experience they've gotten since then. New guitarist Doug Gillard fits pretty seamlessly in the now four-piece group despite this being his first album with the band.
Nada Surf have already defied the indie rock odds by outliving the early mainstream success of their novelty hit "Popular," and achieving critical respect for 2003's excellent Let Go. In the years since, they've released several good but not great records, and at least one single on par with "Popular" — in a just world, "Blankest Year," from 2005's The Weight Is A Gift, would have been a chart-topper. Nada Surf's latest offering, You Know Who You Are, is being released to coincide with their 20th anniversary as a band, and it goes a long way in demonstrating why they have persevered for as long as they have.
Not too many bands have been as continually written off as Nada Surf. It's understandable to assume as much, as the longstanding band have pushed through album after album without much fanfare or recognition except for the tireless support of their fervent fanbase. For a moment in the early aughts it seemed as if they were unstoppable: tender love ballads like Always Love and Inside of Love captivated the Josh Shwartz-curated The OC Generation in a huge way, a time when you'd except semi-cool mope alt-rock bands to make regular appearances on cable teen dramas.
Twenty years after their debut, alt-rock vets Nada Surf return with You Know Who You Are, their eighth studio LP and first set of new material since 2012's The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy. Less brash than its predecessor, You Know Who You Are aims for the comfort zone with power pop that distills decades, from '90s college alternative through the post-indie boom of the early aughts. Mostly, it's a happy affair, where triumphant horns ("Out of the Dark") and bright harmony ("Cold to See Clear") abound.
It seems like American band Nada Surf have been around longer than commercial flight travel but for some reason they’ve never really taken off, their 1996 summer hit Popular being both their own commercial peak and most people’s recollection of a band that have – 75% of at least – been together since 1995, three years after their original line-up was formed. In 2012 they saw the arrival of ex-Guided By Voices guitarist Doug Gillard take their membership to four, and in the same year an unlikely album of covers – If I Had A Hi-Fi – piqued some interest, not least because of their excellent cover of Depeche Mode’s synth-pop anthem Enjoy The Silence. Admittedly flying somewhat under the radar since the 1990s though, it may be surprising that You Know Who You Are is their eighth studio collection, with perhaps 2002’s Let Go and Lucky from 2008 being of most interest to anyone caring to delve into their undervalued back catalogue.
Clean-cut veterans Nada Surf really should've scaled the same commercial heights as Death Cab For Cutie. The melodies behind Matthew Caws’ quasi-philosophical musings certainly draw from a similar R.E.M./Posies nexus (see album highlights Friend Hospital and Victory’s Yours) but as enjoyably winsome as they remain, it’s difficult not to ponder whether this feels a little passé in 2016. To do so, however, is to miss the point.
I admire Nada Surf’s worldview. I really do. Starting with 2002’s Let Go, the band became preoccupied with embracing life in their lyrics, a trend that would carry over into albums like The Weight Is A Gift and Lucky, both of which have titles that mean exactly what you think they do. Never mind that the group introduced themselves to the world with a song whose sarcastic jab at teenage superficiality threatened to make them into a one-hit wonder — Nada Surf prevailed as reliable indie workmen, and they did it without ever turning to irony.
It’s been a long career for Nada Surf, who have pretty much done it all at this point. One hit wonder during the ‘90s alternative rock boom? Check. Critically adored comeback album in the 00’s? Check. Covers album? Check. Added a second guitarist to what was formerly a trio? Check. You Know ….
Nada Surf has had a truly bizarre career trajectory. If you told someone 20 years ago that the same band that had a slightly gimmicky radio hit with “Popular” would eventually become one of the most consistent indie rock bands around, they would probably think you were delusional. Yet here we are, eight albums deep, and Nada Surf (which now features officially features former Guided By Voices guitarist Doug Gillard) seem to be just hitting its stride.