I remember walking through campus in college constantly recognizing faces I couldn't put names to. Vague representations of parties I attended or acquaintances made at coffee shops or an occasional class period I managed to attend. There is a whole lot of this as the pace of the world quickens and most of our relationships are cursory and fleeting. In these sticky moments of awkward recognition (the head nod as we walk by familiar faces, the 'sup' we give to the dude in aisle nine we once met at an after hours, the embellished hellos we give without attaching a name), we become aware of the fickle nature of our relationships. Maybe not. Perhaps I'm just obsessive compulsive with a touch of social anxiety. Either way, whenever I ran into a vague acquaintance on campus, I felt all of these things, but also felt a sense of unity. We were in the same place. We shared the same pathways to class. We ate at the same shitty dining halls. Although we wander through our daily routines nodding to people we only "sorta" know, sometimes there is an unspoken camraderie that develops by simply being in the same spot. I'm a 32 year old English teacher that has lived in Cleveland over half as long as Dylan Baldi has been alive. Still, even though I can pretty much assure you that I'll never be on the same page socially with the brains behind Cloud Nothings, I still connect because of our geography. We both understand the harshness of Cleveland winters, the intensity and hope Clevelanders feel before a new football season, and the pride this town feels about its history, culture, and ethnicity. These aren't trivial musings. Cloud Nothings represents the town in which I live, and Dylan Baldi, while only being in this great city 19 years, is building an arsenal of musical material laced with the attitude and joys of the place he grew up in. It would be far too simple to label my review homerism; this guy is just repping the new record because it's the hometown kid. That certainly may have been initially true, at least for me, when it comes to his 2009 self-released, Turning On, but with this new, more proper and polished self-titled "debut," Cloud Nothings is distancing himself from his raucous and garage rock peers because he, quite simply, is talented and mult-faceted. This loose sense of unity and connectedness I have for Cloud Nothings is important for this city, but has zero to do with how killer and valuable this album will be to all listeners this year.
We loved Turning On for all that it is and was, a transitional album where listeners got to see the emergence of a talented kid with enough guitar chops to separate him from the cookie-cutting, power chord simplicity of his peers. Around these parts, Cloud Nothings is the little engine that could. His live shows are quick hitting masterpieces, far more mature than his age and experience should allow, but this town fills up venues for this kid and his axe. So many reviews will allude to the "bratty" nature of his music, or his "spunk" and "attitude." I heard similar (and still do) echoes when discussing surf-rock bad boy, Wavves, and his emergence. What reviewers and people SHOULD be noticing is how insanely frenetic and multi-faceted the guitar arrangements and progressions are, as the six-string is front and center in every track and, importantly, will set this record apart from the host of bratty punk/surf records that will garner hype this year. Word around the campfire is that Baldi wrote these songs on an acoustic guitar first, which really makes this album soar from top to bottom once my dude plugs everything in. "You're Not That Good at Anything" and "On the Radio" both combine the punky anthemic melodies and speed strumming, but lying underneath are beautifully arranged arpeggios and treble filled flourshes; the fills in "Understand at All" pound home this idea, as well; in other words, there's a whole shit ton of things going on in each track of the record. Some will focus on the catchy in-and-out nature of these quick hitting tunes, but underscoring Baldi's craftmanship in all 11 tracks is a mistake.
Of course, ultimately, the album is a rock record, representative of the blue-collar attitudes Clevelanders so stoicly cling to and emit; it's here where the album hits an air of sincerity and intensity that many folks won't truly understand unless they've been here; until they've seen the musty Beachland Tavern, the downtrodden near east side, or the remnants of a dying steel industry peppering the landscape of our night sky. Baldi has a better record collection than most people twice his age, but totally displacing a musician from his geography is impossible; in this case, it's a boon to the sound that anyone with a pair of ears should get behind. "Should Have" is an impressive road jam that not only show's Baldi's range, but is surrounded in a naive and sullen envelope of melody, perfect for our impending thaw on the horizon; Baldi pines of hopeful moments birthed from stumbles and the nostalgic notions of a wide-open future. "I always knew, I'd follow you, and now we know that it's much better." Clevelanders are a loyal lot, proud of its heritage, and many songs allude lyrically to this city. Other tracks, like "Been Through," pummel listeners with a barrage of gutsy arrogance that fits so perfectly in the northeast regions of Ohio, melting three different riffs and throttled percussion into the headphones. The chrous of the track shifts off-kilter into fragmented and jabbing vocals that exemplify what Cloud Nothings is all about – memorable and aggressive athems with enough melody and uniqueness to stand up on their own. Lastly, the album is not without it's warmer moments of clarity, signifying the band's growth and promise. "Forget You All the Time" is quite a left turn from his previous work but works as an endearing ballad; range is never a bad thing.
This record is triumphantly different from Turning On, and it really doesn't matter for the hometown crowd. It's crucially important for a reviving scene here in Cleveland, and the album is excellent, which will get it out of here and in the hands of many non-Clevelanders this time. The gritty collection of tunes that launched this act haven't been left for dead, but the new release moves into more mature territory. Vocally and musically, the move to Carpark has proven extremely beneficial. The scary thing is what the minimal adjustments have done to ferment Baldi's talents. This potency has limitless boundaries and we're excited for the future. This city has a rock star on the horizon and once the snow and ice melts, it will also have an album on repeat, awaiting Baldi's next ambitious effort. I've included "Understand it All" for a taste, including a photo from last night's rare unplugged performance at Music Saves in honor of the release. Around these parts, last night we nodded to people we vaguely remembered, but joined in that sense of unity that only great music brings.