Wavves - Afraid of Heights
Record Label: Mom + Pop
Release Date: March 26, 2013
A good friend of mine has a theory that culture—or at least American popular culture—runs in twenty-year cycles. Based on some of the trends in indie rock that have been popping up recently, I’m starting to think he might be right. The list of bands putting out records recently that are somewhere on the spectrum between slightly influenced by and blatantly ripping off 90s indie and alternative rock goes on and on. Several examples of this phenomenon would be Yuck, Cloud Nothings, Metz, California X, Milk Music, Spider Bags and Japandroids.
You can go ahead and add Wavves to that list, because they gleefully pilfer alternative rock radio circa-1994 en masse on Afraid of Heights. Wavves started out essentially as the recording project of California’s Nathan Williams. Backed in the past by a rotating supporting cast of musicians that at times has included Zach Hill (Death Grips, Hella) and members of the late Jay Reatard’s band, Williams seems to have settled on a duo for the current incarnation of Wavves, with bassist Stephen Pope being the only other permanent member. The two are joined live by a drummer and second guitarist, however.
Over the course of four albums and an EP, Williams has progressed from making very noisy and abrasive surf-influenced pop to straight up pop-punk to what now is essentially an unashamed distillation of a plethora of 90s alt-rock household names. Not that there’s anything wrong with “wearing your influences on your sleeve,” so to speak, when done well, it’s just impossible to talk about this record without mentioning the likes of Green Day, Weezer, the more commercial portion of Dinosaur Jr.’s career, and…Nirvana. It shouldn’t be too surprising coming from a dude who named a song “I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl” (on the Life Sux EP), but this record sounds a whole lot like Nevermind at times, in the production, in the guitar tone, in every way. Hell they even drag in a cellist a la “Something in the Way” on a few songs.
The album starts with a short synth-driven intro that almost sounds like a call-back to “Intro Goth” from the first Wavves record before ripping into “Sail to the Sun,” one of the album’s highlights and one of only a few songs on the record that sounds a whole lot like the material from King of the Beach. If you’re paying attention, when the chorus hits you might notice that Williams sounds almost exactly like Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. Stay tuned, that’s a theme.
Second track and second single “Demon to Lean On” is where the 90s alt-rock homage really begins in earnest. Everything from the chorus-drenched guitars in the verses to the heavy, overdriven guitar tone in the chorus to the cello in the background to the nasally languid way Williams sings the hook (“Holding a gun to my head / So send me an angel / Or bury me deeply instead / With demons to lean on”) sounds eerily familiar. It’s a good song, but it is a little disconcerting how much the song sounds like a “throwback.” On tracks like “Demon” it doesn’t really interfere with my enjoyment of the song, but elsewhere on “Lunge Forward,” which legitimately sounds like it should be on Green Day’s Insomniac, I don’t really like what I hear. It’s just too similar in a strange sort of way.
“Lunge Forward” is preceded by the mostly forgettable and slightly noisier “Mystic” and followed by “Dog,” an acoustic number with bells and cellos that is pretty awful. Williams wails, “Still I’ll be your dog” around forty-seven times (I’m estimating) and that’s about it. He more than redeems himself on the title track, however, which is the best song he’s written to date. The chorus will get stuck in your head for days, and while the guitar work as usual sticks to standard pop-punk fare, it’s executed perfectly, and there’s an art to that for sure. Other album standouts include the jangly and lo-fi “Beat Me Up” and heavy grunge-like number “That’s On Me.” Album closer “I Can’t Dream,” on the other hand, drags on for far too long, and has no upward momentum, rather simply existing for five minutes. Williams does some different things with his voice here to vary things since he repeats the same lines a lot, and that’s kind of interesting, but still the song gets old very quickly.
Afraid of Heights sounds great—it’s a very well-produced record, slicker than on previous outings to be certain, but not too slick nonetheless. The album has plenty of memorable hooks, and while the guitar parts are very basic, they get the job done well. All the 90s homage generally doesn’t get in the way of the actual songwriting, and the records that it calls to mind certainly aren’t bad ones. The biggest issue on the album, however, is the lyrics. Sure Williams isn’t exactly renowned for poetic insight or depth, but his lyrics on this album mostly just suck, plain and simple. He echoes themes of loneliness and isolation and occasionally introspection throughout the album, but he does it in a way that is tired, played out, and thoroughly mediocre. But then again, I highly doubt anyone is listening to a Wavves album for the lyrics.
This is not a bad record, but it’s not a great one either. Williams seems to have mostly left behind the beach motif and the surf vibes for straight 90s alt-rock, and more often than not it works for him, but a few songs here (“Dog,” “Everything Is My Fault,” “I Can’t Dream”) fall flat on their face. Still though, this is a fun enough summer record that seems to be made for playing with the system turned up and the windows down, or maybe at the first backyard party of the year. Nothing groundbreaking, but hey—it’s Wavves, what did you expect?
I love this album. A lot. I disagree with a few points here: I think that Dog is good for what it is, and I think I Can't Dream closes the album very nicely, actually. Additionally, Mystic isn't supposed to be heard as some great song that stands on its own, but instead as just kind of a noisy and distorted transition that takes us from Demon to Lean On to Lunge Forward - two awesome songs with two completely different tempos and feels. And although the Green Day, Nirvana, and Weezer comparisons are inevitable, I think that this album is just a natural progression for Nathan as opposed to a tribute payed to all of those bands.
Upon first listen, I thought the album had some filler, notably in the middle, but now, I truly think this album is terrific.