One of the issues that film theorists are divided on is whether film noir is a fixed genre or an temporal artistic movement, and you could extend that line of enquiry to grunge: is it a living, dynamic genre, or is it very much tied to a time a place? No doubt, its primary association is with the early 90s, where it flourished and had an unprecedented influence beyond its own sphere. And there are those who say grunge died twice – first with the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994, and second with the disbanding of Soundgarden in 1997. But on the other side of the argument, though film noir is mainly associated with 40s, inner city America, there are examples of neo-noir, like Blade Runner and Gattaca, and similarly with grunge, there are bands like Nine Black Alps and Blood Red Shoes who’ve kept the sullen flame alive. The evidence that we’re not due a sudden barrage of grungey goodness on our airwaves though, comes from the bands of that era themselves. Stone Temple Pilots eponymously titled sixth studio album, released in 2010, was a far cry from the sludgey, grinding wall of sound that previously defined them, instead being a bewildering assortment of faux-psychedelia and polished coporate rock. And this, likewise the sixth offering from New Yorkers Nada Surf, bears little resemblance to their 1996 debut ‘High/Low’, having thrown out the angsty and ironic post-grunge for panoramic power-pop.
With the album title taken from a favourite saying of frontman Matthew Caws’ father, the trio have perhaps unwittingly created a rock album your parents wouldn’t mind listening to: it’s breezy, melodic and inoffensive, like a mixture of Snow Patrol, Ash in their poppier moments, and college radio rock – Semisonic, rather than R.E.M. Opener ‘Clear Eye Clouded Mind’ is the only real moment of rocking out, boasting a relentless pace, shimmering hi-hats, and a blistering chorus that gets the blood pumping. Most of the other tracks, though upbeat, have a distinctly more relaxed tempo, making the aforementioned an anomaly. That doesn’t mean that what’s left over is bad – but it can’t help feel like an anticlimax either. Nevertheless, there are some other gems on here. ‘Jules And Jim’, named after the Truffaut film, twinkles like a lullaby, with Caws’ harmonics at their most sublime, and the hushed acoustics of ‘When I Was Young’ turns into a lighters aloft anthem part-way through: ‘When I was young, I didn’t know whether I was better off asleep or up / Now I’ve grown up, I wonder what was that world I was dreaming of?.’ There’s a running theme of looking back on younger days juxtaposed with the inevitability of growing up, most clearly expressed through the yearning of ‘Teenage Dreams’, filled with Californian surf-pop influences and and a hook-laden chorus. But it’s the exuberant rush of ‘Looking Through’ and its jangling enthusiasm that make it one of the best on here; when Caws asks ‘Are you dancing? Are you dancing at all?,’ it’s hard not to answer in the affirmative.
What you get out of the ‘The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy’ is directly proportional to what expectations you bring to it. If you’re expecting anything equivalent to a brutally deadpan ‘Popular’, the hit that catapulted the band to MTV fame back in the day, then put down the record and step away. If you instead keep your expectations more fluid and enjoy it for what it is, rather than what you think it should be, then you may find enough to appreciate, though it is far too adult oriented rock and middle of the road to be anything but the sound of a band coasting, rather than making waves. Take note: if you’re hoping for a fix of that seminal Seattle sound, you’re better off plundering the archives from that time, as there’s scant evidence of it here.