The year was 1996. People were so busy making fun of Bob Dole that they weren’t noticing that their modern rock radios were spitting out a bizarre speak-sung story song that had a wide-ass hook you could drive a truck through and a nerd-core vibe that sounded suspiciously like Weezer. The song was Nada Surf’s “Popular.”
It sounded suspiciously like Weezer because the Surf’s 1996 debut High/Low was rescued from obscurity and subsequently produced by Ric Ocasek, who is famous for his production of the first Weezer record, for writing the best song Pheobe Cates ever stripped to, and for having a head so weird it can only be described as “Lovett-esque.” While getting Ric Ocasek to produce your debut album should be a coup, I think it worked against them because at the time everybody just thought they were clones of Rivers & Co. (right down to the detached, ironic snarkiness, which is I’ll grant is present on the single but not abundant elsewhere on their debut), and as subsequent albums have proven, they are miles away from Weezer.
In a perfect world, “Popular” would live forever as a testament to just how weird the radio and MTV could be in the mid-’90s. Sure, it has hooks-a-plenty, but the weird, excitable dialogue in the small “scenes” that frontman Matthew Caws lays out is way off the pop music map (usually reserved for novelty songs, which I’m pretty sure is how a lot of people absorbed this track anyway). I think it’s a bummer that the video for it was so literal, as shot-by-shot recreations of the lyrics are never, ever interesting (for proof, see every Barenaked Ladies video), but in my mind the concept was forced on them by the label.
(As a side note, it should be noted that Nada Surf first formed in one combination or another as early as 1990. It was a full five years before they had a deal. I find that incredible in the sense that I don’t ever see that happening anymore. It seems like bands have deals roughly ten minutes after they’re formed, and people are sick of them before they get a chance to fire their first drummer. Do bands have an easier time building word of mouth now because of the Internet? Or is the record industry really that much more impatient than it was ten years ago? I have no answers.)
Nada Surf developed a cult following but didn’t break a second single from High/Low, which is a shame because they could have used an army of followers to support them in their next endeavor.
When they submitted their sophomore album The Proximity Effect to their label, the suits gave them the old “We don’t hear a single” line. So they were sent back into the studio, and when the corporate idea of a single didn’t materialize, they wrestled the rights to the record back from the execs, who weren’t going to bother to release the album anyway. Now, part of me understands Elektra’s hesitation, as The Proximity Effect lacks the arena-ready production sheen that smothered their debut, but in reality, the record sounds even more branched out and expansive. Caws possesses a tossed-off croon of a voice that can sometimes be a liability, but most of the time he sings with such conviction and joie de vivre that it keeps him out of Stephen Malkmus territory. The opening trifecta of “Hyperspace,” “Amateur,” and “80 Windows” has a collection of very weird, off-kilter melodies that do not scream “radio hit!” but they do have a way of burrowing into your grey matter (Jarvis Cocker of Pulp has the same melodic sensibilities).
In-between tours in Europe (their popularity there is staggering– The Proximity Effect was a big hit in several countries-they dropped 2002’s Let Go, which is an amazing collection of songs. They are the kinds of tunes that remind you of that one girlfriend you had in high school that you never really got over: When they pop up on your iPod you briefly consider immediately getting on a train to go to Boston just to see if one of she’s okay and remembers your name-and that’s just the first song (“Blizzard of ’77”). “Blonde on Blonde” is the best song about Blonde on Blonde ever written, “The Way You Wear Your Head” is an obsessive, basket-case sequel to “I Want You To Want Me,” and “Inside of Love” is the sound of a quiet evening thinking about loneliness while you smoke opium and watch Twin Peaks on DVD. Yeah, it’s that good.
My favorite thing about Let Go is that, for all intents and purposes, it’s a New York album. For anybody who is curious about what it’s like to live in the city on a daily basis, wait until it’s so cold your nipples could shatter, and then get this album on your headphones and wander around in the dead of night looking for Frank Zappa albums. That’s what New York feels like (and somehow, that’s a compliment). Maybe I feel this way because that is exactly what I did during the Blizzard of ’03 (which is another reason why I think I understand a little more deeply when Caws sings “the cars were just lumps in the snow” on “Blizzard of ’77”). Also, I had a hard time listening to this album for a while because it was in my heavy rotation when I contracted a spot of food poisoning so bad I thought I was going to die, and listening to Let Go actually made me feel nauseous for a time. I have the same problem with first Audioslave album, but for entirely different reasons (oh, snap!).
Nada Surf put out an import-only live album last year (from what I’ve heard, it’s remarkable. Anybody want to donate it to the Bring Kyle More Awesome Guitar Pop Foundation? It’s tax deductible, as long as you don’t mind being audited), and are currently working on a new album scheduled for release some time this fall. The band could possibly have a bit of a renaissance with this album, as they’ve been touring with rock journalist darlings Rilo Kiley and are currently on Barsuk, which needs a cornerstone act now that Death Cab are cashing major-label checks. At Alt-Rock High School, Nada Surf was voted “Most Likely To Be Underappreciated But Still Kick Ass and Ultimately Enjoy Tremendous Critical Success In Europe Or Something.” So far, they can gloat at the reunion.