“All I feel is transition now,” sings frontman Matthew Caws on Nada Surf’s quintessentially melodic seventh album. But as far as transitions are concerned, The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy is as much a stylistic departure as a new season of CSI: Miami. Twenty years in, these New York mainstays sound perfectly content with business as usual (and when you continue to release albums this sticky with hooks, you’ve earned that comfy privilege).
You really have to give these guys credit. Arriving with their solitary hit, the anti-conformist singalong “Popular,” smack-dab in the middle of the mid-’90s alt-rock boom, Nada Surf seemed destined for a career-tanking collapse. But Nada Surf were the pesky, tuneful roaches that survived the alt-rock MTV holocaust – and every few years since, they crawl with another batch of ear-grabbing indie-pop (like 2005′s excellent The Weight is a Gift).
As is typical with any Nada album, Astronomy‘s impact is dulled when listened to in large chunks – the production is uniform throughout, and the band’s mid-tempo, major-key zeal blurs into impressionistic patches of color, like trees on a windows-down summer drive. But hooks are hooks, and there are plenty of ‘em: “When I Was Young” is epic stargaze-pop, with a skyrocketing chorus and a liquidy, Billy Corgan-esque six-string salvo. “Jules and Jim” is a jangly, Beatles-style charmer with “Please Please Me”-styled guitar fills and a dextrous Caws vocal that tugs gloriously on the heartstrings.
Though there are only three of them, Nada Surf are still the inverse of a power trio: Daniel Lorca’s bass pumps along merrily underneath Caws’s rich guitar flourishes, while drummer Ira Elliot plays just enough to not overplay, content with four-to-the-floor pulses and splashy cymbals that punctuate every phrase. Melody, as always, is the star of this show – Nada Surf are just along for the ride.