Every so often, a song arrives with no other mission than to make you feel as if you’re back in high school — same neuroses, fewer pimples. ”Popular,” the first single by the New York alterna-pop trio Nada Surf, is one of those songs, and in the best way. Over spare, droning chords, singer-guitarist Matthew Caws recites lines inspired by some long-lost, clueless ’60s guide to being an accepted teen: ”Being attractive is the most important thing there is,” and ”Wash [your hair] at least every two weeks.” With the utterance of each phrase, Caws grows more unhinged — he knows that even if he followed these rules, he’d still be loser of the week. The chorus, a burst of creamy power pop, provides release, but its litany of cliches about teen popularity (being a quarterback with a ”cheerleading chick”) is even more sarcastic. Imagine Revenge of the Nerds: The Musical condensed into one of the year’s cheekiest singles.
Alas, Nada Surf’s debut album, High/Low, won’t threaten many preppies. Most of it peddles generic postteen angst (”I need a new heart, this one’s hollow/Always schemin”’) with the standard verse-to-chorus acceleration that would have made Nirvana a fortune had they filed for a patent. Better than Better Than Ezra, the album is tuneful (”Icebox” has a warm, fuzzy hook that bodes well for the future) and admirably concise; the band hammers out 10 songs in 36 minutes. Still, the single, destined for Buzz Bin-style saturation, should be enough to guarantee them a plaque in the alienation wing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Retaliation against the in-crowd never sounded so good. B-