Rock 'n' roll has never had a rulebook. Dylan Baldi, the 20-year-old Clevelander responsible for indie-rock buzz band Cloud Nothings, is the latest songwriter to take preconceived notions of his music and flip it on its head.
Cloud Nothings began as a solo project in 2009, when Baldi was a teenager holed up in his parents' suburban basement. He recorded short bursts of crude-sounding punk songs, with just enough pop shine peaking out from under the reverb haze.
Passed-along mp3s caught the attention of Carpark Records, also home to Baltimore's Dan Deacon. After Carpark signed Baldi as a one-man band, he headed to a studio in Baltimore's Copycat Building — made famous as Wham City's headquarters — with producer Chester Gwazda (Deacon, Future Islands). Cloud Nothings' self-titled debut album hit stores in January 2011.
But after months of touring the country in clubs he couldn't buy a drink in, Baldi had an epiphany: He no longer wanted to be pigeonholed as "that lo-fi guy."
"I was tired of making that kind of music," said Baldi, whose band plays the Ottobar on Sunday. "I like it still, but it's the same song over and over."
You would be hard pressed to level that critique at Baldi now, thanks in large part to producer Steve Albini (Nirvana, the Pixies), the go-to guy for bands in need of a sonic makeover.
Albini's fingerprints are all over "Attack on Memory," Cloud Nothings' latest album, released in January to fawning reviews. Baldi's vocals are at the front of the mix, no longer hiding in a sea of distortion. There are compelling, soft-and-loud dynamics in all of the songs, channeling the post-punk bands from 10 years ago that found success on the independent label Jade Tree.
In other words, "Attack on Memory" bares little resemblance to the Cloud Nothings that started in Baldi's parents' basement. He said he mainly listened to the Wipers, a late '70s punk band from Portland, while writing the album.
Ditching your band's sound after one album is a tricky move, especially when the idiosyncratic debut launched your career in the first place. For Baldi, it was a risk worth taking, yet he understands if not everyone agrees.
"It's a weird thing to do," he said. "People aren't used to when bands completely change what they're about."
Baldi said the change of direction fits because it makes Cloud Nothings operate like a real band, not a one-man project telling players what to do. The aggressive new material has brought new confidence to the band's live show, as evidenced by numerous glowing reviews from this month's South by South West festival. "Attack on Memory," named to symbolize the band expunging its old identity, features some of Baldi's darkest songs. He's described them as "depressing" in previous interviews. But the root source isn't a bad breakup or an existential crisis — Baldi was simply impatient about Cloud Nothings' success.
"I was bummed out that I had been doing what I had been doing for a couple of years, and not being at the place where I wanted to be," Baldi said. "We had done a lot in two years but I wanted to take it to another level and we weren't quite getting there."
Judging from the critics and how rewarding it remains months later, "Attack on Memory" is a large step in that direction. It seems that Baldi knows what he's doing, and he has no plans to slow down.
"I think we're going to start recording right away," he said of his post-tour plans. "I see us putting another record out next year."
Perhaps only one logical question remains: Is Cleveland the next facet of Baldi's life to get an overhaul? It doesn't sound likely, even as he admits there are more interesting possibilities.
"It's not too different from Baltimore, honestly," Baldi said. "There might be a pocket of something interesting happening here and there. It's not the most happening place, but I like it."
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