Nada Surf pounds the Metro crowd

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

Heavier sound makes you forget ‘Popular’

By Mark Guarino

Matthew Caws is an illusionist. His blonde curls, baby face and slight frame suggests that the music of Nada Surf, the trio he serves as lead guitarist and songwriter, is twee and might be good for naps.

At Metro Saturday, Caws and company demonstrated that would be impossible. Nada Surf may be best described as a power pop trio, but despite the yearning in Caws’ voice and the utopian statements of some of his songs, the band plays with resolute heaviness.

Nada Surf is enjoying a celebratory second wind, having almost ended up a one-hit wonder in 1996 when their song “Popular” became a popular hit on MTV, a scenario that almost always leads to the major label dustbin, populated by bands like Third Eye Blind, Harvey Danger, Marcy Playground and many others.

Yet that hit, a milestone for some, became a footnote. Nada Surf regrouped a short while afterwards and resurfaced on Barsuk, an independent label that would re-launch the band in 2002 and position them as natural precursors to labelmates Death Cab For Cutie and Rilo Kiley. It also helped that Caws powered his band’s second life with far superior songs.

Nada Surf’s 24-song, 100-minute set consisted mostly of those Barsuk years, including “Lucky,” their most recent album, released earlier this year. Songs like “Whose Authority” and “Always Love” were perfectly crafted, but were also driven by Daniel Lorca’s snarling bass leads that seemed to always counter Caws’ chipper, speedy guitar riffs. Drummer Ira Eliot added to the momentum; his galloping snare and busy fills made “Treehouse” sound like a forgotten hit from The Who.

A recently issued box set collecting the band’s five albums (and single EP) on vinyl commemorates 15 years together, an achievement that allowed the band to re-discover old songs knocked off setlists years ago. That includes “Neither Heaven Nor Space,” which showcased their earlier interest in moods, rather than craft — a necessity most bands grow into if they can survive long enough.

As for “Popular,” the song was tossed off before the encore and just didn’t seem to fit where the band is today. The lyrics — really, one talky rant about breaking up with your girlfriend — felt awkward from a band hovering around age 40, and considerably lightweight compared to the songs that came afterward.

The audience found it a needless exercise too. The songs that received the most response — and participation — were ones from their most recent past like “Weightless” and “Zen Brain,” which would please Walt Whitman for their wide-eyed wonderment and meditative introspection.

Yet the essential pop music ingredients were not neglected. Caws introduced most songs with cues on where to sing along and how to move, but the crowd didn’t need the instruction. On “Weightless,” the lights went dark and the crowd took over, singing to a backdrop of an imitation night sky, with blinking lights that suggested stars.

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