NADA SURF @ La Sala Rossa

By Cara Ventura - Classified - 10/11/2005

There is something to be said for having the uncanny ability to tell a story with a song...

...and here comes the Weezer comparison (“in the second sentence?”, you may ask. Yes). Pinkerton was a painstakingly written album. The ups and downs of love and life -- dare I say high/lows -- were documented with an ingenuity and heart-on-sleeve mentality that was at once explorative and concise. The balance is devastating. As a side note, the album is so personal -- and the poor initial reception was taken so personally -- that Rivers Cuomo and company never perform tracks off of said album live.

Here we go, then. New York-based Nada Surf pre-existed Weezer as a band: Weezer formed in 1993 shortly after frontman Cuomo left Baltimore for college on the West Coast, whereas Nada Surf members have been together since 1988. They released their first indie single in 1993, and shortly thereafter Nada Surf was signed to Elektra where they finally released their first LP High/Low in 1996, nine months after Pinkerton dropped. Pinkerton took nine months to record; High/Low was recorded during the third month of Pinkerton’s recording. Both albums were produced by Ric Ocasek.

The track “Popular” was a hit, but never brought Nada Surf to the forefront of the geek rock scene as “Buddy Holly” did for Weezer. It is possible that the somewhat mean-spirited tongue-in-cheek attack on the cool high school kids didn’t sit well with the alternative rock audience of 1996, although the more probable reason is that "Buddy Holly" was catchier (and had a freakin' cool Spike Jonze-directed video that got insane rotation on MTV). Nada Surf thus had to deal with being overshadowed by the sensitive rock that the Weezer phenomenon brought to the Top 40 lists of the mid-90's. As their career pushed forward, they became known for the unparalleled ability in the alternative pop scene to tell a coherent and witty story with each up-tempo song on each album.

All this paves the way for some discussion about the show at La Sala Rossa on a crisp October evening. Chris Walla (of Death Cab for Cutie guitarist fame) produced The Weight Is A Gift and that hit music store shelves on September 20th 2005. But first, a bit about The Weight Is A Gift. It is good… it is musically solid, and sounds quintessentially Nada Surf with their trademark perfectly in-key vocal harmonies and extremely competent musicianship. Herein lies the “but”.

The lyrics seem half-baked and the concepts behind the stories are not strikingly cogent. If I didn’t understand English, or if I was twelve years old, I’m pretty sure I’d like this album infinitely more. There doesn’t seem to be any huge step in a direction away from the niche that they have found tried and true -- and to be fair, they have been an obvious musical influence on acts that sprung up around the turn of the millennium. "Blankest Year" and "All Is A Game" could have been easily placed on any of their albums, yet somehow they don’t sound terribly anachronistic.

The performance was, as expected, perfectly executed. The sound in the venue usually causes issues, but they were ignorable. Even the discrepancy between the production on the album and the somewhat unclear acoustics became a non-issue due to the chemistry between the band members, the audience and the music. There was a sense of nostalgia in the show. I did feel as if I was walking back into in that sort of limbo era, post-Pavement pre-Get Up Kids.

There is an earnestness in Matthew Caws’ performance. He has a really genuine heart-on-sleeve delivery with each note he sings and each chord he plays. Matthew is a good balance to Daniel Lorca’s bravado and very "on" stage style. The latter's persona-driven performance of Let Go’s "Là pour ça" was almost cringeworthy.

I enjoyed myself. The show earns three and a half happy faces out of five -- mostly for the overall solidness of the performance. Yet it really wasn’t anything to write home about.

[Classified is currently on hiatus. Keep an eye out for a return to the CJLO family soon.]