You may recall “rockism” as an accusation of obstinacy, fit for the kind of guy (called a “rockist”) who sighed relief at the sight of Dave Grohl trading guitar licks with Joe Walsh, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney at the Grammys just a week and a half ago. For a moment there, he thought, it was as if all the Skrillexes and their bleep-bloop machines had shorted out, and all the despicable pop stars had gotten their comeuppance for not writing their own lyrics.
While the stereotype does make for a bad caricature of a close-minded music fan, a lot of values rockists hold dear (authenticity, instrumental skill, use of Viagra and hair-feathering devices) are certainly worth pursuing as a professional musician (except perhaps for the latter, more sarcastic one). The rockists are right to value these things as important, even if they’re wrong to challenge other approaches to music as inferior or compromising or whatever.
That all said, several distinct factors elevated Baldi from a writer of high-grade, uppity pop-punk to a potentially seminal, true punk artist between LPs No. 1 and No. 2, and then between No. 2 and No. 3. Among them:
• the immediate and seamless incorporation of heavier, codified punk tropes, both musically and lyrically, such as desperation, frustration and hopelessness;
• the coalescence of the unit as a band, playing better-organized, more intricate and more diverse song structures together;
• Baldi’s inability to avoid writing excellent pop hooks that carry a strong sense of melody even when it sounds like he’s gutting his voice;
• a signature Steve Albini production job that’s more than sufficiently loud without mushing any of the mix; and
• a healthy tension in expectations created by the album’s title and the actual sonic delivery of its contents.
All these somehow reflect core rockist values, which makes me suspect that Baldi’s a throwback kind of guy. In fact, all his misguided youthful hope made me think of Ian MacKaye’s work with Minor Threat and Fugazi when I wasn’t trying to compare “Attack” with the other excellent, savage stuff Albini’s produced. Baldi is a great manager of influences, building his way to a hypnotic, sludgy coda midway through “Wasted Days,” a track that starts off sounding like The Strokes, if their manager sneakily switched their cocaine out with heroin.
The coda builds chugs along into a full-on post-punk climax that launches Baldi into the album’s most fearsome lyrical tirade (“I thought! I would! Be more! Than this!”) and a final freak-out that any ’80s hardcore band would’ve been proud to claim as its own. It’s a similar case on the late-album track “No Sentiment,” from which the album derives its title.
What most shocked me on my initial listen was Baldi’s ability to shift gears after all that hollering (and the shuffling paranoia of opening track “No Future/No Past”) into the genuinely pleasant pop hook that cues “Fall In.” “Stay Useless” is another standout, showcasing Baldi’s sense of melody and strong lyricism, matched by refreshingly playful dual guitar riffing. It’s honestly not that far from the Hanson brothers’ range.
As producer/engineer/whatever he calls himself these days, Albini does his usual Albini thing, clearly mic-ing each instrument so that they’re all easily discernible from each other, but still hella loud. The instrumental track, “Separation,” is a good example, as the bass lines run all over the place and instruments occasionally pause, allowing the others to sweep into the void.
It’s early in the going, so I’m going to declare “Attack on Memory” the best new album I’ve heard in 2012. There’ll surely be better ones to come along (“Attack” stands fairly short at about 33 minutes, but it bodes well for Cloud Nothings that that’s the best negative criticism I can come up with), but I predict that number will be in the single digits.