March 24, 2013

Album Review: Wavves' Afraid of Heights

The Passion of Nathan Williams and his band Wavves is one of the most well-known underdog stories to unravel itself in Internet-age indie rock times. It began in 2009 with the the critical mass' over-hype surrounding his then-bedroom project's self-titled debut before he had as so much set out on his first proper tour, inevitably giving way to a highly memorable and entertaining on-stage meltdown on a Pitchfork-curated stage too big for the green musician. The backlash from the same tastemakers who shoved Wavves into that spotlight were unabashedly critical of the situation, as was his fans' resentment instantaneous. After taking some time to get his shit together and adopting the dearly departed Jay Reatard's band members as his own, redemption was found a few years later with the glorious fuzz-pop fuck off sophomore effort, King of the Beach. In 2013, Williams is at a stage in his career navigating Wavves where only one person is to be held accountable for any of the band's possible shortcomings or missteps, however, and that of course is himself. It's now just he and bassist Stephen Pope aboard the ship tackling all studio instruments, and on their third LP Afraid of Heights, the pop-punk frontman's decisions to bring a steady hand along in big name pop producer John Hill (M.I.A., Rihanna, Santigold) results in Wavves' most polished effort to date without forcing them to grow up too fast or abandon their self-deprecating absorbency.

Williams even went as far to self-fund the recording of Afraid of Heights before signing on with new label Mom + Pop (thus putting countless corporate endorsements and unusual merch table items into reasonable perspective,) unlike the Mountain Dew-backed / Fat Possum released King of the Beach, who he recently told Pitchfork pushed the album "under a magnifying glass" with outside influences who'd nothing to do with the creative process. There's lot more patience, realistic frustration and reflective young wisdom heard in both the music and words this time around, which is a big credit to Hill rounding away the rough corners that had become an expectant, growth-stunting staple in Williams' diet of bratty, weed-binging pedal-and-drum pop-punk. It's telling in the album's most immediately accessible standouts such as first single "Demon to Lean On," the Jenny Lewis-featuring title track, and the latter end's "That's On Me" and "Gimme a Knife" where Wavves' sonic sphere is filled with exponentially larger amounts of guitar reverb and studio lacquer that aim to please big '90s alternative radio frequencies on the same wavelengths as blue album-era Weezer, Green Day's Dookie or Nirvana's first outing in the major leagues, Nevermind ("Afraid of Heights" even makes a deliberate nod at "Say It Ain't So" at the mention of waking up and finding Jesus.)

Afraid of Heights is far from just another adrenaline-amped guitar punk album from Wavves, though. Despite its raging nuances, "Sail to the Sun"'s soft whistling first few seconds predicate the changing tides of maturity later heard in the dark, D-tuned and xylophone-speckled acoustic number "Dog," "Cop"'s uplifting lovers' quarrel shimmer or the self-blaming beach orchestra Panda Bear wash out "Everything's My Fault." Slowly wandering closer "I Can't Dream" might be the LP's most telling barometer of where Williams' well-being and creative game stand at this point in his adultly transition, exclaiming, "I was fucked from the start / So would you like to set me free?..." and later on, "I can finally sleep / But I can't dream..." It's an acknowledgement by the frontman that Wavves will always have its critics, but an admission to coming to terms with the cross he reluctantly bears sitting in the upper indie rock echelon as its favorite punching bag. This time around on Afraid of Heights, Williams has the seasoned foresight to dot all of his "i"'s and cross every single "t" inside the studio and inside his head, letting it be known that his biggest critic of his failures in fact happens to be himself. It's his career to wreck if he wants to, and in that regard, Afraid of Heights is the album that once and for all let's it be known how real Wavves are.

Wavves' Afraid of Heights will be released March 26, 2013 on Mom + Pop Records.

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