For most artists, a covers album serves either as an opportunity to pay tribute to key influences or as a chance to showcase interpretive skills. For indie-pop trio Nada Surf, their set of cover tunes, If I Had a Hi-Fi, seems less likely a tribute than an excuse to show off their tastes. To their credit, the band’s taste is pretty exceptional, and it’s their unconventional choices of material that make If I Had a Hi-Fi a worthwhile project and not just simple hipster posturing.
The performances of the songs don’t venture terribly far from Nada Surf’s gentle, sunny pop aesthetic, and few of the songs are given much of a reinterpretation or rearrangement. The album works best, then, when the band chooses a relatively obscure song that, to an unfamiliar listener, could pass for one of their own originals. Lead single and album opener “Electrocution” is a highlight in that regard: Originally a solo cut by Bill Fox, best known as part of ‘80s-era band Mice, it doesn’t challenge Nada Surf in any meaningful way, but it’s a fantastic song in its own right, and it falls right into the band’s wheelhouse. Filtering glistening power-pop through a fuzzy, AM-radio vibe, “Electrocution” is one of the year’s finest singles, and it’s a good deal better than the material on Nada Surf’s underwhelming previous album, Lucky.
Several other cuts on the record are just as impressive. The Go-Betweens may be an obvious point of reference for Nada Surf, and the band does justice to their rendition of “Love Goes On.” It’s uncommon for modern bands to release covers of songs by their contemporaries on proper studio albums, but the version of Spoon’s “The Agony of Laffitte” included here suggests that more acts should give that idea serious consideration. “Lafitte,” a brilliant standalone single that Spoon released in retaliation to a perceived betrayal by a major label A&R rep, is notable for its disconnect between a cheery pop soundscape and scathing lyrics, and that type of disconnection has informed much of Nada Surf’s best work, making the song a natural fit.
Versions of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” and Kate Bush’s “Love and Anger” are serviceable, but placed alongside less well-known tracks by the Silly Pillows and the Soft Pack, they come across as less organic. That isn’t to say that they’re novelty covers by any means (it’s not like the band chose to cover Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” like nearly every touring act has done in the past year), but they don’t necessarily fit with the overall tone of the album. It’s the band’s confidence and self-awareness that keep that tone from sinking the project. Were Nada Surf not so comfortable with their own style, If I Had a Hi-Fi might play entirely as an indier-than-thou stunt performance instead of a fun, if somewhat slight, one-off record.