Cloud Nothings is the name under which 18-year-old Cleveland native Dylan Baldi makes music. In many senses he’s a musical purist, working hard to bring physical media back into play within a world that’s increasingly digital. His earliest songs, recorded entirely by himself via computer in his basement, were primarily distributed via cassette tape, CDR or vinyl. When he’d finally collected enough songs back in 2009 to create an album, the initial run was limited to 50 CDs and 100 cassettes. It seems those 150 copies were well-placed though, and with a little help from the internet buzz machine, the hype built to the point where labels were interested. The “Turning On” EP was the first official Cloud Nothings release on a label, followed by the 13 song album of the same title that collected everything Baldi had done up until that point. It wasn’t really a proper debut album, considering these were all the same old songs with the same crappy basement quality, simply re-released to give more people a chance to get ahold of them. Now it seems that 2011 is the chance for Cloud Nothings to take things to a new level. Baldi now has a full band backing him, and a legitimate studio-recorded album full of brand new songs. Now available via whatever recorded medium you so desire, “Cloud Nothings” is out this week.

You can easily identify the sound of Cloud Nothings by examining what bands they’ve toured with. Woods, Wavves, Best Coast, Kurt Vile and Real Estate are just a few notables, and if there’s one thing all those groups have in common it’s that they make quick and dirty lo-fi recordings that skew towards the fun and catchy. Even with the full use of a studio, Baldi only cleans up Cloud Nothings just a little bit. The guitars still grind and have sheaths of distortion and fuzz, but they don’t overtake everything else like they once did. That leaves more room for Baldi’s vocals, which attempt to but don’t always excel like he might want them to. He does have to prove himself singing-wise this time around because fidelity is no longer an issue. To be perfectly clear though, he’s always on key, it’s the WAY he sings that’s slightly problematic. Depending on the song, he’ll change his style accordingly, moving from lower register crooning to gutteral punk rock screams to even a slight bit of falsetto should he feel up to it. There’s no easy reference for who he might be trying to emulate on individual songs, just the feeling that not every vocal is consistent and you may wonder which voice is Baldi’s real singing voice.

What is completely consistent though is the songwriting. Baldi has a very innocent, heart-on-the-sleeve style of writing that serves his young years well. As Best Coast can write simple (but brilliant) songs about boys, weed and cats, Cloud Nothings can write about love, social rejection and a variety of other easy topics with an equal dose of simplicity and smarts. Fuzzed out proto-punk songs don’t particularly lend themselves well to complicated topics and big words, so while Baldi stays in familiar territory, his songs excel in plenty of other ways. You take a song like opening track “Understand at All”, where the chorus is basically “I don’t understand love/And I don’t understand at all”, and though those very basic lines speak from a young man’s perspective trying to make sense of things, more important than any of it is how insanely catchy it is. The melody is fun and bouncy despite the general confusion of the lyrics, and it’ll be stuck in your head for days if you let it. Keep in mind that’s just from track one. Expand out to the rest of the record, and this thing is packed to the gills with those same types of hooks, thrown at you over and over and over again in rapid succession. It’s too much, but that’s what inspires you to keep replaying it. You’ll need at least a half dozen listens to even begin to see the full picture, though chances are good chunks of the album will stick with you right from the start. It’s that insane combination of factors that pushes “Cloud Nothings” above the fray and into buzz band status.

Cloud Nothings owes a debt of gratitude to a number of bands, primarily from the grittier side of the 90s, but if you’re looking for a good modern-day band to compare, there’s a very similar strength in arms to the UK band Male Bonding. If you heard their record “Nothing Hurts” last year (it was one of 2010’s best), you should immediately find comfort in the arms of Cloud Nothings. Similarly, if you’re already familiar with or are just now trying and liking Cloud Nothings, having a glance at Male Bonding could introduce you to another great lo-fi rock band with a strong ear for dynamic hooks and off-the-charts energy. But back on the topic at hand, “Cloud Nothings” represents the exact step forwards this band needs to take relative to the basement demo quality of the first album. It’s clearer, catchier and more focused than its predecessor and offers promises of potentially great things to come from this band in the very near future. In the cold month that is January, this album is a little ray of fun sunshine to help break you out of whatever funk you might be in. If it works that well now, imagine how good it’ll sound once it’s actually warm outside.

Cloud Nothings – Should Have (STREAM)

Cloud Nothings – Understand at All (MP3)

Buy “Cloud Nothings” from Amazon