Cloud Nothings vacillate between wow and blah at High Noon Saloon

Fire Retarded, Madison's premiere scrappy garage punk band, rocked the High Noon Saloon with their patented rave up.

Fire Retarded, Madison's premiere scrappy garage punk band, rocked the High Noon Saloon with their patented rave up.

It’s been a strange trip for Cloud Nothings, Dylan Baldi’s jangle-pop-cum hardcore punk outfit from Cleveland, Ohio. Their first two records—mostly unassuming; pleasant, if not forgettable—were generally kitschy little indie rock collections. Lo-fi, fuzzy and bubbling with an infectious warmth. It was a bit of a shock when 2012’s wonderful Attack on Memory threw it all away in favor of a raucous post-hardcore assault. It’s certainly the high point of the band’s career to date—even if this year’s Here and Nowhere Else is an absolute blast, it never captures the manic/depressive jitters of its forerunners, sucked dry of lead guitarist Joe Boyer’s interplay with Baldi’s chest-thumping rhythms. It’s almost been like watching a band slide backwards into the primordial ooze; texture, style and finesse have all given way to primal urgency. It’s been fun, but whether or not it’s the right choice for the group still remains to be seen.

Friday night’s set at the High Noon Saloon leaned heavily on the band’s last two breakout records. In fact, it leaned entirely on them. It wasn’t much of a surprise—last time I saw the group, even before they had shed their second guitarist, their set was already void of pre-2012 material. If Baldi is the mastermind (or tyrant; reports vary) he purports to be, he’s certainly a restless one. The show saw all eight of Here and Nowhere Else’s tracks get some time in the spotlight, plus a little more than half of Attack on Memory. The songs did seem to glow a bit more when stripped of John Congleton’s more-muddy-than-endearing production, but they were still fundamentally the same scrappy numbers. “Just See Fear” and “No Thoughts” especially validated themselves as reluctant anthems; much fist pumping and shout-a-longs were to be had. Likewise, obvious standout “I’m Not a Part of Me” got the supremely sweaty reaction it deserved. “You guys really liked that one, huh?” asked bassist TJ Duke afterwards, to which the audience responded jubilantly.

The Attack on Memory tracks, meanwhile, didn’t fare so well. If Here and Nowhere Else depends on the dirtied allure of simplicity, its predecessor unfortunately seems more dependent on its recorded complexity. “Separation” came out the most unscarred by the loss of Boyer, still an instrumental tour de force that the crowd absolutely ate up. “Cut You,” “Fall In” and “Stay Useless” still all shone as great songs by their own merits, but with the increased focus on punk ferocity, they seemed to lack the more subtle noodles of pop that anchored them on record.

“Wasted Days,” arguably the highlight of the band’s catalog, resurfaced as an extended jam for the group’s closer. The opening and closing stretches of the song—straightforward verse/chorus/verse progression and screamed reprisal, respectively—worked just fine, but the nearly 10-minute breakdown in the middle suffered from its muscled approach. On record, the song swells to the breaking point, warped and intricate guitar work washing over wild drums and vigilant bassline until the whole thing becomes a blur and explodes. Live, it just sort of turns to mud for a few minutes. It’s just one example of a band not exactly playing to its strength—the show, if anything, has convinced me that while Here and Nowhere Else’s flirtation with relative minimalism was far from a failure, it’s something the band should reconsider the next time they swing by the studio. And while they’re at it, maybe they should just get Steve Albini back.

The lingering sense of mild dissatisfaction probably wasn’t helped by opening acts Fire Retarded and Protomartyr. Fire Retarded, one of Madison’s most low-key treasures, continues to impress with their rapid development. All the cuts from their recently released debut Skroggz Manor in particular shone—not that the band’s enthusiasm and natural showmanship didn’t effectively sell itself anyways. Compared to the more mechanical and precise Cloud Nothings, rooted in place the entire show, Fire Retarded’s insane Stooges antics felt breezier, more natural and—most important of all—more fun. Protomartyr’s causal post-punk meditations didn’t have the same wow factor, but when the band hit their stride they sounded pretty damn good as well.

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