Album: Nada Surf, "The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy" (Barsuk)
It's easy enough to forget about Nada Surf, as they traipse lackadaisically into their third decade of purported existence, because they have agreed to not startle or alarm us as long as we leave them alone to be Nada Surf.
The fragile peace of this imaginary agreement was only threatened once and very long ago, when they produced a song called "Popular" which lived up to its title and briefly threatened to reveal the band members' identities to a record-buying public only mildly eager to discover them, but the danger soon passed and Nada Surf was free to continue making records the existence of which most of us only sort of remember being distantly cognizant of.
Still, there's some decent stuff in the back catalog, if not tons of it, because Nada Surf are nothing if not restrained. Only seven studio albums over 20 years, one of them consisting entirely of covers, a pace that does not raise concerns about overwork, although lack of inspiration remains a thorny issue: "The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy" continues the band's enduring, Sensational Alex Harvey Band-like streak of creating albums that don't build off the previous one so much as they walk around the chassis scratching their heads and idly kicking the tires while trying in vain to figure out where that rattling noise is coming from. The answer, in 2012 terms, is to play a little bit louder and a little bit faster, which feels like a cop to the (also SAHB-like) notion that Nada Surf is a "live" band -- see also Dog, Dr.; Animal Collective, and just about everything Dan Bejar involves himself in.
Three of the first four songs on "Astronomy" practically jump into your lap like eager puppies, culminating with "Jules and Jim," which stands up on its toes and begs for attention. The fourth, "When I Was Young," is the only one you'll remember a day or two later, singer Matthew Caws doing his best Simon sans Garfunkel as the strings press in from all sides before good old rock-and-roll guitar and drums push them back, a lovely work of undulating tension that feels like an outlier and is.
"Teenage Dreams," another relative high point, reaches for this same sense of dramatic dynamics and almost gets there, defeated only by a lackluster chorus and a firing chamber seemingly fouled with wet powder -- the band has an odd tendency to pull its punches just at the moment you're rooting for a kill. "Let the Fight Do the Fighting" heads off along the same path and runs into Midlake somewhere on a grassy knoll somewhere in the middle of Kentucky -- the resulting bust-up turns into a weird tussle over the future squatter rights to Fleetwood Mac's unused guitar picks and drum brushes. "No Snow on the Mountain" is almost roots-rock, however, or at least a variety soaked in '80s L.A. cowpunk -- you can hear Gram Parsons in there if you listen hard enough, but he's not yelling nearly loud enough to make you believe he's being summoned.
The set closes with the similarly inconclusive "The Future," which appears to be about things to say when you run out of things to say. "The future has no words," Caws sings, and later informs us that we are all just rust in the machine. As with most of the songs on not only this album but virtually everything ever recorded by Nada Surf, the lyrics are surrounded by sort of a vague, shimmery outline suggesting "rock lyrics." Similarly they are accompanied by the sound of "rock and roll instruments," some of which you might even recognize: guitar, drums, bass, some singing. They're all there. Is any of it bad? No. But it's hard to say if it's any good, either. In the great unfolding movie that is the history of rock and roll, Nada Surf remains Man #2 in Diner. How can you possibly judge his performance if the director won't even tell you his name?