It’s easy to see why Dylan Baldi, frontman of Cleveland’s Cloud Nothings, became an aspirational figure for both devoted fans and aspiring musicians alike. The band just released their ninth studio album (after having released two in 2020 alone) “The Shadow I Remember” February 26, 2021, and every album has seen Baldi taking the creative helm with a burning passion that contradicts his otherwise laid-back demeanor.
Call it ill-advised, headstrong or courageous, but his decision to drop out of college more than ten years ago has since brought Baldi down a prolific and rewarding path. Cloud Nothings’ meteoric ascension to the status of indie darlings in the early 2010s helped create the template for success in the era of internet listening.
Don’t call it blog rock, however. The emotional fortitude of Baldi’s songwriting and the disciplined technique of his bandmates have carried them through an expansive and exciting discography that deserves to be explored as the band returns with their latest.
The band’s origin story begins in Baldi’s parents’ basement in the suburb of Westlake, Ohio in 2009. Their earliest songs were conceived during his weekends home from college and brought to life by Apple’s GarageBand.
Before they became a legitimate band, Cloud Nothings was just a name given to Baldi’s solo compositions when he uploaded them to MySpace. Throughout high school, he would often doodle album artwork to accompany various fictional band names. ‘Cloud Nothings’ happened to be one of those projects which people dug.
Throughout the course of his freshman year, labels were drawn to his alluring lo-fi jangle fuzz and invited Baldi to open for acts like Real Estate. He signed to Carpark Records, who distributed his EP “Turning On.” It’s easy to see the potential that smaller labels may have seen in the sound, correctly forecasting that the frenzied energy of tracks like the opener “I Can’t Stay Awake” would eventually be transmuted into intense teen anthems like “Hey Cool Kid” and “Water Turns Back.”
The frontman (who was only 18) called upon friends he had met through the local music scene when he was pressed to assemble an actual crew to perform with. Bassist TJ Duke had first heard of Baldi after one of Duke’s own bandmates spoke of Baldi’s impressive handiwork at his high school’s ‘Rock-Off.’ Duke would go on to introduce Baldi to the band’s current drummer, Jayson Gerycz, and their first lead guitarist Joe Boyer. Within the space of a year, the quartet would transition from playing on sidewalks to minor stages at SXSW events.
Meanwhile Baldi and Gerycz recorded an underrated four-track EP, “Leave You Forever,” which has since become tragically rare. The title track perfectly highlights the band’s adolescent underpinnings, while “You Were Scared” deserves to be immortalized in the soundtracked climax of a nostalgic 2000s throwback teen romcom – whenever society deems such a thing culturally acceptable.
The next Cloud Nothings album, self-titled, was written and recorded by Baldi once more and runs under 30 minutes. The deceptively fast paced project sees Baldi meshing his affection for skate culture and lo-fi to a more professional studio treatment afforded by his new relationship with Carpark. While its ambition fell short on a handful of tracks, the album did deliver some strong ‘middle school angst playlist’ contenders in “Should Have,” “Forget You All The Time” and their more lively counterpart “Been Through.”
Cloud Nothings skyrocketed to the front page of music blogs and review sites exactly a year later, when the band emerged in a renewed form for 2012’s “Attack on Memory.” With help from the ruthless DIY mogul Steve Albini as the album’s producer, Baldi and crew successfully proved that their greatest asset would be each other.
Teen angst is still very much present in tracks like “Cut You” and the catchy sleeper hit “Stay Useless,” but the sophomoric sloppiness is gone thanks to the skilled musicianship of Boyer, Gercyz and Duke. The variety of techniques on blistering tracks like “Wasted Days” and “Separation” make Albini’s decision to record the band live together in the studio a no-brainer.
The band’s momentum continued with 2014’s “Here and Nowhere Else,” which expanded upon the fuzzy and hook-driven structure of its predecessor and refined it further. With the departure of Boyer, the group worked with producer John Congleton to “trim the fat” to great effect. The solemn piano featured on the intro to “Attack on Memory” is no more and the guitars dominate instead on the opener “Now Hear In.”
The reduced trio is also in tighter formation throughout. They navigate extreme tempo changes and improv sections with precision thanks to Gercyz’s incredible pace on “Psychic Trauma” and “No Thoughts.” It wouldn’t be a Cloud Nothings record without a front-facing radio hit too, of course. “I’m Not Part of Me” delivers just that with its stadium-grade riffs and appropriately unnerving music video.
On the road to the next album, Baldi eased his pace a bit. “No Life For Me” would be his most substantial project for a while and was a collab with Nathan Williams of Wavves. For better or worse, the album demonstrated just how far each artist’s sound had diverged from their shared lo-fi rock roots – best demonstrated on “How It’s Gonna Go.” It’s a close race, but Baldi’s emotional closer “Nothing Hurts” surely wins Team Nothings the better half of the collab here.
After another few years of touring and recording, 2017’s “Life Without Sound” reflected a change of pace for the group. Baldi’s uniquely complex style of playing would now share the stage with current lead guitarist Chris Brown and the effect is perfect on “Things Are Right With You” and the lead single “Modern Act.”
Vocals also get the studio treatment on the album – per their producer’s heckling – Baldi’s singsong hooks are front and center on tracks like “Sight Unseen.” The band even manages to score a textbook indie rock ballad in “Enter Entirely” and still dial the tone of the album back to a dark and heavy conclusion.
Almost two years later, Cloud Nothings brought their dark edge back more completely with “Last Building Burning.” The doom metal expertise of producer Randall Dunn resurrected their explosive punk energy for “On An Edge” and “Offer An End,” while still leaving space for some pop influence on “Leave Him Now” and Baldi’s balladry on “So Right So Clean.”
In the time between “Last Building Burning” and the rapid change of 2020, Baldi and Gercyz only strengthened their musical kinship. The two came together for two albums of free jazz material last year, transforming their ritual post-tour improv jams into a treat for fans.
At the same time, the two spent a good chunk of the year emailing snippets of prospective songs back and forth, which eventually coalesced into “The Black Hole Understands.” As if that weren’t enough, they released another album of similar material as a Bandcamp exclusive, piloting a subscription program on the website. For the price of twelve lattes a year, fans can get a new EP from the band every month, as well as access to the LP “Life Is Only One Event.”
So far, that’s pretty much where things stand with Cloud Nothings. Their frontman remains prolific as always, still carving out enough time for innocuous goofs while maintaining the composure of the lay-about college slacker he once emerged as.
If there’s something vaguely endearing about the band’s earliest work, it might be how effortlessly Baldi has always churned melodramatic teen energy into crunching rock outbursts that testify beyond their years. What Cloud Nothings do with the rock template is hardly new, but they find a kind of nostalgic success in that their songs feel a bit like flipping through a yearbook filled with tried and true rock moves.
Some may recoil at the thought of sifting through old memories like a stuck record, but like rewatching a favorite flick, a Cloud Nothings album always promises a therapeutic throwback – especially when the good ol’ days you’re waiting to create are currently stuck in limbo.
Skim through the many sides of Cloud Nothings here: