While others were at the Dylan/Costello bill at the Fox -- and still others were at Ween; who went? Weigh in below! -- I trekked in the cold rain to the Gargoyle to see Nada Surf and Sea Wolf.
Sea Wolf hails from California, a spawn of the same scene from which Silversun Pickups and Irving came (in fact, Sea Wolf leader Alex Brown Church was in the latter band) -- and live, the collective amped up its rustic acoustic sound with accordion, keyboard and strings. (The lovely, folksy "Middle Distance Runner" in particular benefited from these flourishes.) Really, the band's warm sound is what I wish Bright Eyes was, serious and introspective without the pretentiousness. The single "You're a Wolf" became forceful, not delicate, as did the Hollies-esque "Black Dirt." and while other songs from its debut, Leaves in the River, felt like a Russian square-dance. Delightful.
Last night's gig proved that Nada Surf is one of the most underrated -- and consistent -- pop bands around. If not goofy: For starters, it opened up with "Popular" (the song which first brought it popularity in the 1990s), a song whose lyrics singer Matthew Caws now speak-sings faster, above the music almost. (This followed a hilarious anecdote where he mentioned the show Nada Surf played at Harrah's last year, which stuck out to him because of the fake fire with fabric "flames" that lined the stage; apparently, the fabric actually caught on fire a few weeks later during a Gin Blossoms show. Does this mean the GBs are more punk-rock than Nada Surf? Hmm. Discuss.)
Actually, the NYC trio is an accidental dance band, mostly because of dreadlocked bassist Daniel Lorca. While Caws' charming self-deprecation and goofy stories -- thanks apparently to some pre-show whiskey, he had an extended monologue about killing fruit flies -- dominate, Lorca's shuddering, rubbery basslines were effortlessly fluid. Let Go's "Hi-Speed Soul" and most songs played from 2005's The Weight is a Gift, in fact, provoked new-wave bopping (think The Breakfast Club) and involuntary limb-shaking in me. I'd never noticed before on recordings how good he was, or how much of Nada Surf's appeal is because of its rhythm section.
New songs the band debuted -- from the upcoming, February 5-released Lucky -- were much more reminiscent of straightforward power-pop, in that they highlighted Caws' vocals, jingly guitars and pristine harmonies above all else. In fact, they reminded me of Sloan or the dBs -- another cult NYC band that Nada Surf has actually covered before in concert. Download "See These Bones" here; below is the video for another new song, filmed in Chicago on Saturday.
Nada Surf, "Whose Authority":
As the show went on, I remembered just how many poppy songs Nada Surf has -- the melancholic sweetness of "Happy Kid" ("I'm just a happy kid / Stuck in the heart of a sad punk") and a loud, fuzzed-out "Hyperspace" stood out. The band even slipped a snippet of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" into an encore version of "Stalemate," a few songs before a fist-pumping "Always Love" and a raucous version of "Blankest Year" -- replete with Caws asking the crowd to call back the "Oh, fuck it!" part of the song back to him.
Just a quick note to Wash U, though: Seriously, you can't flip on the heat yet? I have never been so cold at a show -- and it wasn't even that cold outside. It wasn't the Gargoyle's fault at all, but the basement location was an iceberg. Brr. No wonder attendees were doing some weird interpretative dancing in the back, chugging liquor from the bottle -- or, er, freaking on stage once or twice. No lie; I never thought I'd see dirty dancing at a Nada Surf show.)
Here are some more Nada Surf links: *More audio than you can shake a stick at *MP3s of a recent live session, thanks to My Old Kentucky Blog