July 7, 2010

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All Douglas Martin has to say about it is, “Asphinctersayswhat”.

In many ways, Nathan Williams of Wavves was one of the first major victims of the hyper-accelerated career cycle sparked by indie-rock’s blog age. Releasing a cassette in 2008 through Woodsist subsidiary Fuck It Tapes, Wavves was christened as a breath of fresh air by behemoth online outlets Gorilla vs. Bear and Stereogum before Williams even played his first show. By the time his official debut was released, he was snapped up in the second wave (no pun intended) of popular lo-fi acts, signed to Fat Possum, received Best New Music honors by Pitchfork, and was declared an underground sensation even though he looked like a Wayne‘s World extra. But in the words of Kanye, “To whom much is given, much is tested”, and the detractors showed their faces in droves.

Williams was accused of hiding his dearth of songwriting ability behind walls and walls of noise and distortion; his hybrid of The Cramps, The Beach Boys, and 80% of the bands on Slitbreeze was derided for lacking chops. I personally enjoyed the self-titled cassette and debut record Wavvves (which is affectionately referred to in some circles as ‘Extra-V’), primarily because I wasn’t expecting some 20-year-old slacker/skate-punk/stoner to be banging out Tchaikovsky compositions on a $400 computer in between bong hits under the roof of his parents‘ guest house. In fact, the rudimentary catchiness and shithead veneer are what made those records so endearing in the first place.

The problem isn’t that Wavves and Extra-V weren’t good records, it’s that those records made Williams too famous in too short a time. Because of which, the meteoric rise was tempered with an expeditious fall. There was the Primavera Sound meltdown. There was the fistfight with Black Lips bassist Jared Swilley. There was the backlash that became louder than the hype. Williams became a burnout with only around twenty songs to his name; he never received the benefit of toiling in obscurity, which is sometimes necessary for artistic growth.

After staying quiet for about two months (which counts as “a lengthy hiatus” when in the context of Wavves hyper-accelerated career), Williams returned to the limelight by recruiting the two defecting members of Jay Reatard’s band (a man who is also no stranger to controversy or negative press), becoming the envy of lonely art-rockers everywhere by dating Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast, and enlisting producer Dennis Herring (Camper Van Beethoven, Throwing Muses, Modest Mouse) to man the boards for what is already hysterically being referred to as his “comeback” record, the self-aggrandizing King of the Beach.

The first thing noticeable comes about fourteen seconds in, when Williams’ voice comes in; his actual voice, not obscured by reverb or distortion or any sort of vocal effect. The clarity in the vocals immediately display Williams’ limited ability as a singer, struggling to hit certain notes or stay on any one note for too long. This doesn’t matter much on the opening tune, due to the irresistible melody and double-tracked vocals. King of the Beach‘s title track is a two-minute, thirty-eight second distillation of the things Williams does right: He rips off– ahem, takes cues from— the right bands (in this instance, Wire), he confidently takes on a good vocal melody, and he strikes just the right balance between self-destruction (inviting the sun to burn him) and chest-thumping bravado (the chorus of, “You’re never gonna stop me”), the latter of which suggests that his status as a hip-hop fan is neither cheap irony nor a cynical attempt at outwardly displaying cultural variety. Both the title-track and lead-single “Post Acid”, despite Williams’ limitations as a singer, are catchy, serviceable tunes that play to Williams’ strengths.

Elsewhere on King of the Beach, the added clarity serves as an albatross; when looking at things through a crystal-clear lens, the blemishes appear in better view. On “Super Soaker”, Williams cribs the shoegaze-tinged punk of No Age and unleashes a barrage of missed notes and a bridge that wholly collapses under its atonal pitch, leaving you wishing Williams’ petulant drone was replaced with Dean Spunt’s boyish bleat. “Green Eyes“ takes an addictive verse melody and ruins it with a jarring key shift and put-on angst that makes Williams sound even brattier than usual. “Linus Spacehead”, “Take on the World”, and “Idiot” are all paint-by-numbers pop-punk tracks that wouldn’t sound out of place on the record of your garden variety mainstream-alternative band; anyone old enough to remember The Offspring has heard tracks like these a million times. Gotta keep ‘em separated.

In his attempt to add variety to the record, Williams falls flat by utilizing overused musical clichés. “When Will You Come”, which uses the now-infuriatingly worn-out backbeat of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”, is a half-hearted attempt at a girl-group 45 which is suspiciously reminiscent of Deer hunter’s “Vox Humana”, only without the Bradford Cox’s creepy, spoken-word vocals (which at least broke the monotony of the musical theme). “Convertible Balloon”– and, to a lesser degree, galloping closer “Baby Say Goodbye”– is a bouncy number that more-or-less sounds like a cut-rate outtake from Animal Collective’s stratospherically overrated Merriweather Post Pavilion. At least the latter track is made interesting by being enveloped in a thick layer of white noise, but the actual song is not better by very much.

The most surprising thing about King of the Beach is that its best tracks are the ones that sound like they could have been recorded in that beach house he stayed in when Williams was living off of his parents’ dime. “Baseball Cards” takes chintzy synths and drum machines, throws them into a vortex, and comes back out of it sounding like 25th-century doo-wop. Later on the record, “Mickey Mouse” revolves an earworm of a punk tune around more chintzy drum machines and houses what is probably the best vocal melody on the entire album. For an act so largely derided for his homespun style, it’s probably quite fitting that the songs that sound the greatest are also the ones that sound the cheapest.

In the olden, romantic days of indie-rock, the cream would rise to the top. Nowadays, in the “Blog Age” or whatever the fuck we’re calling it, everything else rises, too. Nathan Williams wasn’t given enough time to hone his skill set as a songwriter before being launched into worldwide popularity, so you can’t help but wonder not when he’ll fulfill his promise, but if he’ll ever become good enough to justify all of the widespread acclaim attached to his band. And if he never gets good, is it his fault for not being good, or ours for prematurely casting a spotlight on him?

Download:
MP3: Wavves – “Mickey Mouse”
MP3: Wavves – “Cool Jumper”

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