Reviewed by: Max Miller
If you, like me, only hazily remember the name Nada Surf, allow me to jog your memory. During the alt-rock boom of the mid-’90s, a scrappy young band of charming, humorous upstarts signed to a major label and recorded their debut album with former Cars guitarist Ric Ocasek. And that band was…um, no…not Weezer. We’re talking about Nada Surf. Their debut, High/Low, came out during the summer of ‘96, spawning the sardonic hit single “Popular.” Like so many other bands of that era, they were never quite able to capture the public’s attention like they did that first time around. Unlike so many other bands of that era, however, they’ve soldiered on and continued to make records for those devoted fans who stuck with them long after “Popular” grew unpopular. In fact, Peaceful Ghosts isn’t even the first Nada Surf record to come out in 2016.
Released in March, Nada Surf’s seventh album, You Know Who You Are, still featured the classic trio of guitarist Matthew Caws, bassist Daniel Lorca and drummer Ira Elliot. Since 2012, they have been joined by second guitarist Doug Gillard, formerly of Guided By Voices, and on Peaceful Ghosts, they expand the line-up even further to make room for the Babelsberg Film Orchestra. You see, this is a live album, capturing a concert from this past June in which Nada Surf were asked by FM4 in Austria to be part of an annual series pairing contemporary bands with an orchestra. Arrangements were made by Calexico’s Martin Wenk and composer Max Knoth, and the end result is thirteen tracks of lush, orchestral takes on the band’s considerable back catalog.
Before you even ask, the answer is no: “Popular” does not make an appearance here. And that’s probably for the best, considering its sarcastic angularity stands at odds with the kind of melodic power-pop Nada Surf have spent the majority of their career crafting. All of the songs on Peaceful Ghosts come from their second album, The Proximity Effect, or later. The majority of them, naturally, come from You Know Who You Are, including “Believe You’re Mine,” which benefits greatly from the dramatic horn arrangements that underscore its Shins-meet-A.C.-Newman chorus. The most rapturous arrangement, however, goes to “The Fox,” on which the orchestra greatly highlight the contrast between the darker verses and uplifting chorus. Sometimes the orchestral arrangements sink into the background, only to explode by the final chorus, as on “Beautiful Beat,” from 2008’s Lucky, or “80 Windows,” from The Proximity Effect. On others, like “Blizzard of ‘77” and “Blonde On Blonde,” the orchestra takes prominence over the guitars.
The arrangements and performances on Peaceful Ghosts are stellar and compelling, but it’s hard to imagine anyone besides dyed-in-the-wool Nada Surf fans giving this one the time it deserves. But it still stands as a testament to the oft-forgotten fact that sometimes bands we think of as one-hit wonders are still making potent music and touching lives decades after the fickle mainstream has written them off.