King of the Beach
We all lose our shit sometimes. Hopefully we do it in the privacy of our own homes, far away from mobile phone cameras. Occasionally it’s in front of coworkers or family members, and we have to mumble an awkward apology later. Unfortunately, Wavves frontman Nathan Williams had the misfortune of losing his shit while playing a show at a festival in Spain curated by Pitchfork, the very website that had helped catapult him into fame. The site took special glee in tearing down the man they had been so overeager to promote in the months prior. It was a spectacular, embarrassing, and very public meltdown, indie rock’s own version of Britney Spears (although much less insane, and with less schadenfreude).
So here’s the deal. Nathan made a bunch of songs by himself as Wavves at his parents' house. His poppy, fuzzed out punk generated a lot of critical adoration, perhaps in greater measure than they deserved. Wavves became the Next Thing in a media landscape that is obsessed with the new. I listened to about five seconds of Wavves' first two albums, decided they were too noisy, and moved on to my own personal Next Thing. It was clear in the five seconds I spent with Wavves that they were on to something, but I couldn’t hang with their shitty production values.
So when I heard that their new album was recorded in an actual studio (Sweet Tea Recordings in Oxford, Mississippi) by a guy who had worked with Modest Mouse (Dennis Herring), I was immediately intrigued. What could Wavves do working with good equipment and a guy who knew how to record music? The results prove that Wavves is much more than a flash in the pan, and that Pitchfork’s championing of the band was spot on.
Opening track “King of the Beach” is a blast of wistful pop punk, with Nathan singing “Let the sun burn my eyes.” It’s still fuzzy, but the sound has been cleaned up considerably since his last record, and the result is that you can actually hear what he’s playing and singing. It’s like the band has had Lasik surgery, and all the fuzzy shapes are clear now.
I was totally sold on Wavves by the second song, “Super Soaker,” which demonstrates the strength of Williams’ songwriting. It also shows elements of psychedelic music. In fact, this album is like a mash-up of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, the Beach Boys, and early '90s punk. There are harmonies inherited from Brian Wilson, whimsical trippiness handed down from early Floyd, and the cynicism and ennui of '90s alterna-rock ranging from Smashing Pumpkins to the Pixies to the Dead Milkmen.
Wavves is also an actual band this time around. Williams met drummer Billy Hayes and bassist Stephen Pope after his disastrous Spanish show. The two were playing with the late, volatile Jay Reatard, and must have figured that Williams would be a saner bandmate than Reatard. The addition of a drummer and bassist on two of the tracks rounds out the sound, making Wavves fuller while maintaining a garage punk rawness.
Still, Wavves is Williams’ show, and his personality dominates. There’s a combination of snottiness and self-hatred that is winning rather than off-putting. Williams never sounds pathetic or whiny, always balancing his smart-assness with enough humility to make it palatable. “I won’t ever die/I’ll go surfing in my mind,” Williams wails on “Idiot,” before confessing, “I’d say I’m sorry, but it wouldn’t mean shit.”
Forget what you think you know about Wavves. King of the Beach is a stellar album, and proves that they are the real deal. It’s a hazy, punky, psychedelic blast of sun, surf, and self-loathing, perfect for your next barbecue.