Poor Nada Surf. They were doomed to one-hit-wonder status in many eyes after a certain hit song (which shall go unnamed here) and its video were everywhere for a while in the summer of `96, then suddenly vanished. Despite the hit, the album High/Low only had moderate sales. When 1998’s The Proximity Effect didn’t deliver another hit song, Elektra dropped them and the band disappeared for five years. Nada Surf ‘Mach II’ appeared in 2003 with Let Go, showcasing a huge step up in songcraft with a more diverse and mature indie pop sound. What if Nada Surf had instead started on Barsuk? Could they have taken a career path more like Death Cab for Cutie, building a huge underground following and then making the major label jump, rather than briefly sharing a label on opposite trajectories? What if people could forget their prior life as an ‘alternative’ MTV buzz band and focus on the new stuff? I just think these guys should be HUGE. Again. For real this time.
You can count on Nada Surf to open with a killer track. Let Go begins with what I would consider, in the classic High Fidelity debate, one of the greatest track one/side ones of all time, “Blizzard of `77.” 2005’s The Weight Is a Gift starts strong and peppy with the acoustic rocker “Concrete Bed.” Both barely crack the two-minute mark. On Lucky, Nada Surf gets epic with “See These Bones,” a quite literal title stemming from a trip Matthew Caws took to a crypt in Rome and the ‘carpe diem’ feeling he took away from it. The song lulls you with its slow groove but soon kicks into a driving floor-tom beat and gives us what we’ve come to expect from the group: a chorus that will plant itself in your brain, no matter if this one’s a bit creepy: "Just like we are you’ll be dust." The five-minute track has choruses that get more complex each time, first with a string section, then “ooh” backup vocals, and at the track’s end with several of the song’s vocal lines stacked on top of each other. There’s also a pinch of Ben Gibbard guest goodness, though it seems to be only a couple lines of backup vocals.
Wanting to give us more than expected, the trio tries out some new tricks and are mostly successful. Tinges of country pop up on tracks like “Whose Authority” with the guitar tone and progressions used, but even more so on “Here Goes Something” with its stompin’ bluegrass rhythms and simple structure and vocal melodies -- the twist being an appearance of what sounds like a thumb piano. Closer “The Film Did Not Go Round” has an old-school country feel due to its basic plucked chords and lyrical patterns (same-same-different lines) in the verses, sung with a tight female harmony to boot. The band mixes up this simple tune with some almost eerie strings underneath the bridges -- and speaking of which, strings appear on nearly half the album’s tracks. I’m diggin’ all that, but what the boys try on “The Fox” is a bit weird. The thing gets downright spooky with minor key acoustic arpeggios, tremolo guitar effects, ghostly female vocals, dark cello lines and a hard-hitting tom-heavy drum part that lacks a backbeat. Sure, it’s interesting, but from a band that excels at straightforward tunes it seems unnatural. ‘A’ for effort, but I’m not a big fan of the track.
Another weak spot appears in the album’s midsection with “Weightless,” which rocks in 6/8 yet is too repetitive, salvaged as it fades to a nice 4/4 ballad feel with some Brian Wilson falsetto near the end. Yet as it heads into “Are You Lightning,” we get a long stretch of not-much-goin’-on. The later is not up to their high standards for balladry; “Beautiful Beat” succeeds more so in that department earlier on but I feel there is no ballad here to match past tracks like “Inside of Love,” “Blonde on Blonde” or “Your Legs Grow.” Fortunately, we soon get three rockers in a row to pep me up. “I Like What You Say” is instantly singable with its perhaps overly repetitive chorus, "You say / But I like what you say / I like what you say." Then it’s “From Now On,” a last-minute track list addition that Barsuk had to send to me separate of the promo, a rollicking no-filler pop number with Ted Leo-style-tambourine. Then it’s right on to “Ice on the Wing,” my favorite track with its addictive chorus. The tacked-on ending goes where you’d never expect, with a waltzing ‘um-pah-pah’ brass section provided by Martin Wenk from Calexico splattering the song’s stripped melodic theme.
Maybe Nada Surf will never escape their past, but why should they when their first two albums are pretty decent? And that hit song from their past? I sure got a kick out of it back then and it still rules today. I just wish people would see past it enough to notice how incredible they are now. The group’s past three albums are full of incredible pop songwriting, and while I don’t think Lucky surpasses the past two (with Let Go remaining my fave), it is another solid outing. I would have rearranged the backloaded track listing, but the trio tries some new directions and instruments here and provide their most diverse set to date. Please, everyone: Forget what you think you know about Nada Surf. Give them another chance and you’ll be glad you did.