WASHINGTON, December, 17, 2012 —It’s hard to imagine a band taking a similar route to the one Nada Surf has taken and not only still be a band, but be in a relatively happy place at the same time. Usually, a backstory like the Nada Surf saga gets inverted or never makes it past the early success stage, with the band in question falling into obscurity and never climbing its way back out again. In that sense, the simple fact that Nada Surf headlined a show at Washington DC’s 9:30 Club Tuesday night is one of the more unique aspects of pop music, rock, indie, or otherwise.
When most people think of Nada Surf – and for a lot of people, it’s really the only relevant fact about the band – what immediately comes to mind is their hit single “Popular” from their 1996 album High/Low. Talk to anyone who was paying attention to pop music in the mid ‘90s and they’ll remember this song in some way, shape, or form. It’s a clever song, but not a particularly good one. So when Nada Surf got into an argument with their label (partially because of “Popular”) and were subsequently dropped, the song looked to be the band’s sole legacy.
Undeterred, they self-released their second full length album to absolutely zero recognition in the U.S. on either end of the spectrum. Then they dropped off the face of the Earth for about three years. Normally for most bands, this would be the end of the story, but not for Nada Surf. After lying low for three years, the band eventually returned to the scene. Much to shock of anyone who bothered listening them again, they came back as an astoundingly solid indie rock band.
This is the odd thing about who and what Nada Surf is now: they should be the antithesis of indie rock. But to show just specious the genre label is, Nada Surf is just about the definition of indie rock today. Which is odd. because everyone remembers them as a distinctly mainstream band but all of their artistic flourishes—and there have been a lot of them—have been well outside of the mainstream.
Still, the fact that Nada Surf is now a confident and appealing indie rock band is probably only the second most shocking thing about their recent set at the 9:30 Club. If this show had taken place some 15 years earlier, it’s hard to imagine it not being sold out, even if this band were never quite as big as the ever present nature of “Popular” would have suggested. Instead they played to decent sized crowd at the 9:30 Club, but one that doesn’t necessarily match with the kind of talent they’ve become.
This is the weird dichotomy Nada Surf has created with their career. When they were at their absolute mainstream apex, their quality of music wasn’t even in the ballpark of where it is now. Then, they were in their 20s and brimming with clever ideas, but not enough know how to execute them properly. But as they’ve progressed creatively over the years, they’ve done so in relative obscurity, at least in the US.
That’s rather unfortunate, because as their performance suggests, this is a band that would fit in well with any of the best mainstream pop/rock acts today. Even though each of their songs in this particular set shone brightly like the pop gems they are, none of the members of Nada Surf carried themselves like a band trying to recapture – or perhaps capture for the very first time – the elusive fame that long seems to have eluded them. Instead, they are completely content performing their songs in front of people who appreciate them rather trying to force their audience to accord them some kind of belated stardom.
Nada Surf seems to be perfectly comfortable with their legacy as both one-hit wonders and indie pop darlings. Their show comes off better for it. Their set fits together seamlessly for anyone who wants to experience effortlessly catchy pop melodies, as the band doesn’t indulge in any of the gimmicks people might think were the essence of their calling card in the past. Nada Surf doesn’t ignore their past. But what they do now is so appealing that it’s easy to think of them as an almost entirely different band from the one that existed in an earlier era. Their show at the 9:30 Club proved refreshingly basic—just an earnest and mature pop band playing at their absolute best.
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