Before Every Second Act, There Must Be A First Act: Nada Surf’s High/Low at 25
A look at the band’s more than just “Popular” debut LP
“‘Popular’ may have given people the wrong idea of Nada Surf.”
Ya think?! Those are the first words that pop up on Spotify’s sidebar annotation (in their collaboration with Genius), and they are one hell of an understatement. That “Popular” is also the only Nada Surf song the app’s handy feature even bothers to give the Genius treatment underscores the dilemma the talented three-piece NYC indie rock band faced.
Randy Newman once called his lone top 40 hit “Short People” “the worst kind of hit you could have.” Now, “Popular” did not have the added obstacle of offending a wide swath of humanity. There were no cheerleaders or jocks protesting that they had been wrongfully mocked. That said, in Nada Surf’s case, it was arguably even a worse fate as where at least Newman’s catalogue–while it contained many sober moments of brilliance in sincerity (“Sail Away” “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” “Baltimore”)–sarcasm and snark was already a big part of the singer-songwriter’s brand. For Nada Surf, “Popular” was a bit of an anomaly.
Or was it? While it definitely connected with people on an smirkingly amused level, there was a definite dark punk edge to the song. The song repurposed a 1964 handbook thrown together by actress Gloria Winters. She was profiting off her own popularity as a breakout character on the hit drama Sky King. As he recites the teenage girl guide book’s prose, Nada Surf lead singer Matthew Caws’ rage slowly turns the tone from John S. Hall (King Missile) to Henry Rollins over the course of the three verses. In a sense, it’s a genteel revisioning of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but with a 1960s soda shop twist. It was still vastly different from any other track on the album.
VIDEO: Nada Surf “Popular”
Nada Surf’s most serendipitous moment on the road to a hit song may have been its doom (although the band harbors no regrets based on recent interviews where the subject has come up). As Caws was attending a Blonde Redhead concert at NYC’s Knitting Factory, he bumped into the frontman of one of his primary influences: The Cars’ Ric Ocasek. On the surface, the new wave/power pop hitmakers were a slick operation. However, as Caws noted in an NPR interview two years ago, there was always a darker undertow of jagged rock lurking beneath the band’s hooky surface.
The late Ocasek’s run as a producer is peppered with some great moments where he put a pop sheen on gritty punk icons like Bad Brains, Suicide and Bad Religion–not to mention lo-fi travelers Guided By Voices. As, to reiterate, Nada Surf’s sound was closer to those bands than the alt-rock on mid-’90s radio. Caws passed his demo to Ocasek, not really expecting a response, and wound up getting a call back. That call led to a Gramercy Park meeting in Ocasek’s apartment and an offer to produce if they ever wound up on a label.
On second thought, “doom” might have been a strong word, as it would seem to be a coincidence that the trio wound up on the label that introduced The Cars to the universe, Elektra Records. [Full disclosure: I interned for the label around the time Nada Surf (bluntly) got screwed, but don’t really know much of the inside scoop about that apart from watching their album get delayed for the whole time I was unpaid by said label.] However, it’s arguable–almost definitive–that signing to a major was the both gift and curse that makes their story what it is. That is, a redemptive tragedy.
It’s almost impossible to not put the record into the context of Nada Surf’s crazy career arc towards critical justice, but we’ll get to that. Can we give this record its due for once for what it is? High/Low is a much better record than critics painted it as. I’ll never get the mix of hate and relative silence (to its hit) this album received–Robert Christgau even torched it with his lowest rating of bomb.
In truth, High/Low might have been best served by being released on a Matador or Merge or Sub Pop, a top-level indie where they build some cred, but still get some college radio play and prime indie retail location, at least by those who weren’t misled by the novelty song. “Deeper Well,” High/Low’s opening track builds from an insistent percussive heartbeat into fiercely jagged guitar riffs. Ira Elliott is the quiet-loud-quiet MVP of the record as his stuttering, yet perfectly timed drum riffs pair with Daniel Lorca’s hiccuping low end for a satisfying vibe that is unpredictable but somehow fun in all its dourness.
Most of the album is much closer to Jawbox than the alt radio rock of bands like Live or Better Than Ezra. Actually, of the bands of the time, you’d probably be more likely to be fooled into lumping them in with Cake or the Presidents of the U.S.A. (both good young bands, but not in the same ballpark genre-wise).
After “Deeper Well” sets a tone of manic energy that lures you in and continues unabated into what could have been the leadoff single in an alternate universe in which “Popular” did not exist. “The Plan” goes all Pixies loud-quiet-loud with a wide hook combining against all odds with all the weird edges.
The “quarterbacks” and “cheerleading chicks” of the featured hit comes just at the perfect time for the listener to take a breath, especially if they already have a fondness for the MTV Summer mainstay. It sets one up perfectly for the Cobain-in-“Polly”-esque ominous whisper of “Sleep.” I’m starting to wonder how in 1996 I never really noticed just how many Nirvana echoes were in this record.
“Sleep” builds momentum to match the opening of my personal favorite track, one I overplayed at college radio, “Stalemate.” It starts on an insistent percussive beat with a touch of neurotic darkness somewhere between Joy Division and Wire. Its lyrics play creepily gleeful games with words before breaking down into an elegiac chorus of sorts. It’s a sound that would feel at home in the early emo of bands like Seaweed–with guitar flourishes to match.
The power pop holding Nada Surf’s music together pushes to the forefront on the earworm “Treehouse.” It’s pureness would fit on an album by Buffalo Tom or The Connells or Posies at the peaks of those great band’s careers. It’s Nada Surf at their wordplay-happy best. Lines like “A tine in the fork in the road is pointing to heaven but the sky is old/a tine in the fork in the road is pointing at nothing cuz it’s all been sold” may be a tad silly, but they linger behind years later.
It’s at this point that the LP seems to start to wind down the party. However, it’s a bit of a false ending. “Icebox” plays a quiet emocore wail of sound with the repeated line “bury me in sorrow, cover me in joy” setting the tone. That dissolves into “Psychic Caramel” where the percussive break of “see sun sand self” hints at Jimmy Eat Worlds to come.
“Hollywood” is the closest to musically forgettable, but the lyrics (“Been trying to hear something complete/No microtones and no backbeat”) are strong and it provides an intro to the final song. I’d place “Zen Brain” on my shelf of perfect wistful ‘90s indie rock LP-closing songs with Matthew Sweet’s “Smog Moon,” Superchunk “Martinis on the Roof,” and Radiohead’s “Street Spirit.” Ok, it’s a very specific list, but still. There’s just something about its zoned out sad bliss that has an hypnotic effect; all is OK with the world and with Nada Surf’s High/Low.
There’s a softly illustrative moment in Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter’s excellent memoir So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Star where he’s struck by a spirit-breaking epiphany. Ironically, he’s at a celebration of what was ostensibly was the fruit of his band’s labor. MCA was throwing a party in honor of their 1998 breakthrough album Feeling Strangely Fine going platinum. Why would Slichter be sad at such an achievement? Because it was becoming clear that the album would not go double-platinum.
Frontman Dan Wilson’s ode to new fatherhood (well, we know that now), “Closing Time,” after a long run on Billboard’s pop and alternative charts was starting to fade. It was highly doubtful that any follow-up could match it. That “Singing In My Sleep” was a terrific pop number that should have been massive is for another day. It’s sinister semi-secret of the record industry, but our readers know. Rising artists on major labels borrow tons of money to promote their own albums. Slichter realized that “Closing Time” grazing the pop top 10 was their moment. Even with a song bars across the nation routinely play at 2am, they were likely at their peak. Yet they were still financially underwater.
After High/Low, Nada Surf would find themselves in a sort of limbo. While their follow-up album The Proximity Effect was a hit in Europe, the band and Elektra found themselves in a power struggle back in the U.S.A. The label of course wanted to recreate the magic that gave them their unlikely hit. They tried forcing the act to record covers. Elektra even suggested the absurd: that they jam in an acoustic version of “Popular” on the record. In any case, it was to no avail. Elektra dropped them, but in a diabolical twist held on to their album.
For a bit, Nada Surf seemed like a horror story of industry mismanagement and cruelty. Tales at the time painted the picture of a band who had been mewed up by the system. However, that was never true as while the band worked day jobs–Caws at a Brooklyn record store–they never broke up.
AUDIO: Nada Surf The Proximity Effect (full album)
Nada Surf would eventually buy Proximity off Elektra and release the version as they intended two years after the fact. That led to the band signing with prominent indie label Barsuk Records, on which the trio has been releasing critically lauded records every few years starting with 2002’s Let Go. 2005’s “Always Love” is breathtakingly sweet and optimistic pop single, one of the best of the 2000s. This band needs no pity. Two of the non-major label albums even charted nearly as high as High/Low.
Still, let’s raise a glass for this quarter century old record even as the album’s cool reception vexes me to this day; this should have been one of the great albums of the 1990s. While it’s their only album unmentioned on the Barsuk site, Caws did mark the moment last month with a fond tweet.
It may never receive the credit it deserves (at least in my eye) I stand by listing it in my top 20 of those ten years in a late-1999 post to a long-defunct radio station’s website. It’s one of those records that feels seamless (not surprising of an Ocasek album). Even THAT song, our oddball novelty hit–feels a snug fit. Whether the album’s meh reviews had to do with annoyance at its quirky hit, being thrown off by said song, or the possible truth that it was just not meant to connect with others as much as me is moot. Like the similarly polarizing indie punk record with emo hues, Jawbreaker’s Dear You, this record has aged better than you might think. Like that album, High/Low deserves to be more than a footnote to a talented and indefatigable indie rock band’s second act.
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