The Black Clouds - Better Days
Release Date: January 1, 2013
Record Label: Unsigned
Is it weird to anyone else that we are now far enough removed from the nineties for there to be a movement in music that can legitimately be called a “1990s revival”? If you're like most users on this site, you got into music with the surge of pop-punk and emo bands toward the beginning of the last decade. In that case, chances are good that you also remember the eighties revival movement that was going on at roughly the same time, both on the radio and in the indie rock scene. You know the bands I’m talking about: the Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Keane, Scissor Sisters, Bloc Party, LCD Soundsystem, the Darkness, Interpol, and on and on and on and on. Each of those bands may have been making music in the new millennium, but their hearts were firmly entrenched within the decade they grew up. From disco rhythms to flashing synths, from hair metal screams to eyeliner-clad frontmen, from dark, atmospheric goth rock to bright, earnest radio pop, listeners could hardly escape the ubiquitous eighties influence between the years of 2002 and 2005. And now, with younger bands like Cloud Nothings, the Men, and Japandroids playing up the mantra of loud, guitar-driven alt-rock minimalism, it feels like the pattern is repeating itself with a nineties influence instead of an eighties one.
As someone who digs alternative rock but has never been the biggest fan of 1990s grunge, this newfound nineties revival is a bit of a mixed bag for me. I didn’t understand one iota of the hype that got laid upon Cloud Nothings last summer, and the idea of scene favorites, the Gaslight Anthem, making an album of dirty, Nirvana-sounding rock songs kind of makes me cringe a bit. But my rejection of Kurt Cobain as the Christ-like figure he is heralded as seems not to be shared by many, and certainly not by the guys in New Jersey’s the Black Clouds, who want to be Nirvana just about as much as anyone making music right now. From the first moments of their second album, entitled Better Days, it really doesn’t sound like the Black Clouds should be making music in this decade. After all, the filthy guitar sludge and the intense vocal deliveries of singer/guitarists Dan Matthews and Rob Blake don’t just recall Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, but also the likes of other alt-rock frontmen like Dave Grohl and Billy Corgan. The band even gets John Agnello—an industry veteran known for his work with Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and the Hold Steady—to mix the album. Sure, he’s not Steve Albini or Butch Vig, but he does add a certain level of authenticity to the proceedings.
Production duties fall instead to the band members themselves, who recorded and produced 12 out of the 13 tracks on Better Days at their private studio in New Jersey. But while I admire the DIY aesthetic and the initiative necessary to go it alone, without a producer, I feel like an outside professional could have brought another dimension to these songs. As is, I feel like Better Days displays a band with talent and drive, but not a lot of versatility. The songs begin to blend together as the album moves forward, not helped by the live, garage-rock feel that the production tries to stress. For most of the record, it’s just one up-tempo rock song after another, to the point that bruisers like “Breathing” or “Again” or “I’ll Be Gone” could all be different pieces of the same song. The fact that the band plays pretty much the same chords in the same keys throughout doesn’t help either, as it shackles Matthews and Blake to dull and repetitious vocal lines that feel distinctly less than what they are capable of (see the up-the-octave shrieks on "Breathing" for proof). The nail in the coffin, however, is the guitar tones, which only stray once or twice from “heavy grunge sludge” mode. It’s all crunchy chords and ominous rhythms, and it gets tired so quickly that the album’s 38-minute runtime feels like twice that.
However, that’s not to say that Better Days is waste. Even in its flawed conception, the album offers up a few moments of greatness that posit the Black Clouds as a band to watch. When slower numbers turn up, they serve as a jolt to shake the album awake, like on the dark, heavy, Queens of the Stone Age-esque “Fray,” or the borderline hooky “Whereabouts Unknown.” The chorus on the latter never quite gets where it’s going, and it feels like the Black Clouds are intentionally trying to avoid pop music cliches to steer away from anything that might tie them to the mundane concept of radio. However, what the band forgets is that the influences after which they have modeled themselves had huge singles and rebel images at the same time. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” still has one of the most innately hummable choruses of all time, and the Foo Fighters have a solid album discography, but are most notable for their bulletproof line of singles. The Black Clouds want so badly to belong to that same tradition, but in comparison, their songs just fall flat. And that’s really a shame, because they could have been great, great songs with just a few solid choruses or exciting bridge sections. But in the band’s haste to “play loud, play hard, and leave every post-modern music trend quivering in the dust,” (a quote from their marketing materials), they forgot to bring along the essentials of structure and songwriting that could have truly made them something special.