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Wavves' addictive surf-punk makes it king of the beach 

Wednesday, Aug 18 2010
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The youth of today might have trouble wrapping their minds around this, but in the not-so-distant past it was simply not done to listen to your parents' records. (Yes, the gap betwixt generations was once much bigger.) But that was then and Wavves is now, baby — the offspring of both established and underground and/or indie aesthetics. Wavves' main man, guitarist and singer-songwriter Nathan Williams, listened to his parents' records and embraced both rock and the hip-hop underground. The resulting sonic onslaught will likely annoy parents (Williams' and others') in the days and decades to come, if we're lucky.

Growing up in San Diego, Williams spent time listening to the Beatles, Motown, and two of the most iconic Southern California popsters, the Beach Boys and Fleetwood Mac. But he also bent his ears to Sonic Youth, Wipers, the Adolescents, and the earthy-spacey reggae strains of Jamaica's Trojan Records. Like many before him, Williams embraced the D.I.Y. ethic, recording solo at home using an '80s Tascam cassette recorder and Garage Band software. But he went beyond bedroom, basement, and garage, thanks to the Internet. When Wavves began to break out via download in 2009, bloggers, fanboys, and fangirls, became enamored of its gloriously ramshackle, lo-fi SoCal noise-pop.

After the initial burst of buzz around Williams' self-titled debut, Fat Possum Records got interested in Wavves and offered him the opportunity to record his second album in a professional studio — Sweet Tea in Oxford, Miss. "At first, I was a little taken aback, kind of scared to do it," he told Pitchfork. (You take a lad out of the bedroom studio, it's only natural for him to be intimidated.) "It's just this beautiful studio. It has anything imaginable that I could do." But he soon adjusted: "It's the same style of writing that I did before, but it comes through a lot different when you can actually hear everything."

Wavves' latest album, the recently released King of the Beach, also features a new lineup: This time it's Williams plus his touring band, former Jay Reatard rhythm section members Stephen Pope (bass) and Billy Hayes (drums), instead of Williams alone. The combination of studio technology and the interaction with other players sets the new album apart from previous recordings. And bye-bye, tape hiss: Unlike some performers, Williams has little interest in (re)making the same "product" over and over.

In some ways, King of the Beach is a dandy musical and cultural summation of decades of Golden State life, as lived by skateboarder Williams and many of his contemporaries. The kickoff is the raw, surf's-up thrasher title song, a tip of the hat to all the illegitimate surf-punk children of Brian Wilson. A little further in, the pensive "When Will You Come," with its Phil Spector–like big beat (think "Be My Baby"), distant childlike choral harmonies, and yearning bittersweet ambience, evokes the Beach Boys' growing pre–Pet Sounds sophistication. With its minor-key chorus and versus-the-world theme, the sardonically rockin' "Take on the World" suggests the U.K.'s Television Personalities — if they'd grown-up in SoCal, that is. The hazily hip-hop–flavored "Convertible Balloon" recalls not the last days of disco but its middle years, when the likes of Chic and Giorgio Moroder injected intelligent wit into the formula, along with the proto-rap of Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC. Witty mini-symphony "Baby Say Goodbye" is one of those rare pop songs that can call up both triumph (strutting rhythm, exultant lead vocal) and wistfulness (semisweet ooh-wee-ooh/sha la la harmonies). In a better world than ours, this could be a big hit (except maybe for the dub-tinged psychedelic fade-out).

Williams probably has little or no intention of it, but he just might pull lo-fi rock within shouting distance of the mainstream. It's not that hard to imagine future generations nodding their way through a parent's well-worn copy of King of the Beach.

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Mark Keresman

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