The pains of transitioning from the jangly alternative rock of the ’90s to the post-Y2K scatter-storm of free MP3s and fast-food musical consumerism has caused the early demise of countless lesser bands. Nada Surf, however, have survived both the century shift, and a messy transition to life as a truly independent band.
But their split from Elektra may as well be ancient history. Now, in their 18th year together, and making their own decisions under their own Mardev imprint, Matthew Caws and company have put together a collection of covers – and a seemingly unpredictable collection at that – in the form of the palindromatic If I Had A Hi-Fi.
Nada Surf lend their jangly three-piece sound (seemingly ripped beautifully and completely from those wonderful bygone ’90s) to such varied covers that it could be imagined that they just chose whatever songs happened to be playing on their hi-fis on a given afternoon.
Their approach avoids downright imitation of their source material, and they somehow capture a broad swathe of popular music in their own style. This is the sort of tightly knit sound – locked in rhythm section, three-part harmonies, straightforward and infectious guitar work – that every three-piece rock band hopes for.
Nada Surf sound right at home with power-pop joviality on Bill Fox‘s Electrocution and The Go-Betweens‘ Love Goes On. Enjoy The Silence is a rare Depeche Mode cover that manages to both pay homage the original, and to spin it in a new direction.
The Soft Pack‘s Bright Side is a fuzzed-out rocker with energy to spare. And their take on Question by the Moody Blues is a near complete departure from the original, re-channelled and amped up but still maintaining an over-the-shoulder reverence for the original.
But it’s not all brawn or bubblegum. Nada Surf manage to find surprising emotional moments on a few of these tunes, and the effect pushes the album from being merely an extra offering to fill out the merchandise tables on their spring tour (which it is, really) into the territory of being truly memorable, and maybe even meaningful. They find real depth in Kate Bush‘s Love And Anger, with brushed drums and a genuinely stunning vocal delivery.
Their mostly acoustic take on Arthur Russell‘s Janine is a slow-motion ballad soaked in sunshine and pedal steel, showcasing the reach of Caws’ voice, both musically and emotionally. Coralie Clement‘s Bye Bye Beaute is affecting French pop from an unlikely source. They even bring in a string quartet to fill out Mecromina‘s Evolucion, an epic track that elevates the album’s language count to three, for those keeping track at home.
Nada Surf have made a case for themselves as a relevant and meaningful band nearly fifteen years after their breakout single, Popular. If I Had A Hi-Fi is a covers album that stands on its own, and it’s a nice reminder that this new millennium is not only populated by ironic drollery.