Release Date: Mar 26, 2013
Record label: Warner Bros.
The fourth LP from Nathan Williams does for Nineties punk pop what his girlfriend Bethany "Best Coast" Cosentino has done for Sixties girl-group pop: rewires it for a new generation of Spotify-surfing headphone junkies. Starting with heavenly bells and tight-wound guitar slashing, his stoner minimalism gets ambition – there's even a cello! Self-loathing and suicidal tendencies swarm; Iggy Pop is evoked on the semi-unplugged sorta love song "Dog," and Jeff Mangum- and Kurt Cobain-style angst haunt the title track. Frequent Nirvana echoes flirt with overkill.
There’s more to life than skating, booze and blunts, as Wavves’ Nathan Williams has evidently discovered—but not that much more. Afraid of Heights reflects Wavves’ (now a duo) newfound quasi-maturity with ambitious cello and glockenspiel arrangements, but time’s still found for the endearingly disheveled, apathetic no-fi they’re known for. So endlessly California that it sunburns, Afraid is derivative when it’s idling and full of vigor when it’s not.
When a band have found a career on songs about smoking weed and being lazy, their audience can be forgiven for not expecting them to grow up. Indeed, San Diego, CA's Wavves have neither matured nor progressed in any substantial way on Afraid of Heights, their follow up to 2010's stoner-punk opus King of the Beach. In sticking with what they do best, they've gotten even better at it.
Following Nathan Williams' 2009 public breakdown, few would have guessed that the San Diego artist would still be making music in 2013, let alone pumping out records as insanely catchy as Afraid of Heights. "I don't whan-na," he whines on opener "Sail to the Sun," laying to rest fears that King of the Beach's success might have tempered his bratty attitude. It's pervasive throughout the record, which hits on lyrical themes of boredom, paranoia and self-loathing.
WavvesAfraid Of Heights[Mom + Pop; 2013]By Gabriel Szatan; March 26, 2013Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetWhy Wavves? Why not Times New Viking or Lovvers, or Harlem or Male Bonding? Wasn't he just meant to be some loser "faggot" anyway, consigned to the bargain bin of Mediafire for all eternity after the quote unquote no-fi scene collapsed? Weren't his fifteen minutes up quite literally in the space of fifteen thoroughly hilarious minutes? It seems Nathan Williams rather predictably forgot to read the script and now finds himself in a position where a not inconsiderate army of loyal followers will defend him to the hilt against haters, get Snacks tattoos in his honour and retweet his every move/emoji/Simpsons joke. He has become something of a Pied Piper for a generation of Twitter-savvy alt rock fans; and naturally, where impressionable teens go, MTV duly follows. All of which amounts to Afraid Of Heights, Wavves' fourth full-length release, being a reasonably large deal.
The chatter surrounding Nathan Williams' activities has occasionally overshadowed the music itself. It's been five years since Williams' self-titled debut long-player as Wavves, so it's a fine time to step back and re-direct the conversation. Wavves and 2009's triple-v'd follow-up featured monochromatic garage grinders buried under blown-out production-- not exactly the work you'd expect from someone who'd later write a Christmas song for Target with his girlfriend.
Some artists might mature, but you never really want them to grow up. Alternative radio is practically held together by these human hinges—eternal adolescents like Billie Joe Armstrong, who incorporates a t-shirt cannon into performances and has penned a broadway musical, or Dave Grohl, who seems to seek out opportunities where he can dress like a woman for laughs but also gave the SXSW keynote address. These musicians are lovable to many in part because they have remained the children we first met when we were young, and Nathan Williams of Wavves is finding himself on that same party boat, very capable of growing up beyond his Bart-Simpson-in-need-of-Paxil persona.
There will always be a time and a place for rock music that approximates the sensation of being 22 years old and getting intoxicated at the beach with your friends on a sunny, salty afternoon. Wavves perform this important, tried-and-true function of rock music pretty darn well. I can feel the salt water getting caught in my ear and taste the Pabst Blue Ribbon in the back of my mouth.
Four albums in, you’d have thought the joke would be wearing thin for Wavves’ Nathan Williams. Shouldn’t he already be consigned to the fate of all real-life skater wreckhead Peter Pans approaching their late twenties: getting fat and sleeping in your car? After all, Bethany ‘Best Coast’ Cosentino, the lo-fi Courtney to his Kurt, was laughed out of town only last year after her second record revealed that writing trite 1-2-3-4 songs about weed addiction gets pretty old pretty fast. Yet so far, Wavves has been nimble enough to stay half a beat ahead of the pop cultural scythe that’s coming for him.
Thus follows the Under the Radar guide to writing a decent surf rock song. (1) Get the guitars out and play something a bit Dinosaur Jr.-y. (2) Sound, like, laid back and whatever, dude. (3) Do something a bit Beach Boys-y, like a vocal harmony, some chimes, or going "woo-ooh-ooh-ooh.".
Would the Wavves story have turned out differently had Nathan Williams's early lo-fi home recordings not been sucked up into a vortex of hype no human could possibly live up to? We'll never know, of course, and so everything he releases ends up being measured against that early promise. Unfortunately, his current work isn't nearly as remarkable as we'd hoped. Still, Afraid Of Heights doesn't suck.
It’s difficult to square the Wavves that inhabits Afraid of Heights with the lo-fi, noisy, raw nerve stuff that made up much of Nathan Williams’ first releases. Things had changed considerably by the time he dropped 2010’s King of the Beach. Williams tested out where his stoned beach bum angst could go, utilizing fancy tools like a backing band and a real recording studio.
While much of the charm of Wavves' previous albums was their DIY approach and significant layer of lo-fi scuzz, Afraid of Heights signals a shift in the band's creative vision, at least from a production standpoint—one that's seemingly at odds with Wavves' established pop-punk aesthetic. Album opener “Sail to the Sun” begins with an extended intro of chiming xylophone before turning into a crunchy two-chord anthem, like the Ramones with a layer of digital polish. The track encapsulates the tension evident throughout Afraid of Heights—between frontman Nathan Williams's need to expand his palette while also attempting to hold on to a core aesthetic that's been built up over a handful of records.
After the fizzy psych-punk of his last album, King of the Beach, Wavves frontman Nathan Williams seemingly discovered a stash of albums from the '90s and sank deeply under their spell while writing and recording the 2013 follow-up, Afraid of Heights. Working with producer John Hill (of Rihanna and Santigold fame) and loyal sidekick Stephen Pope, Williams crafted an album that has so many influences from the era of grunge, pop-punk, and '90 alt-rock that it's almost too exhausting to play spot the reference on every minute of every song. There are guitars that sound just like Kurt Cobain's, quite a few tracks that sound like Weezer deep cuts, lots of quiet-verse/loud-chorus dynamics, bursts of Pixie-esque angst, and a general feel of hazy nostalgia for the era that bleeds the album of energy and punch.
It’s hard to tell how much, after a three-year bout of sporadic discreetness, pressure was on Wavves to deliver with their fourth studio album. Having returned at the tail end of 2012 with the album’s lead single, ‘Sail To The Sun’, the pair dropped in the snotty noise-pop we’ve become accustomed to alongside a thought-provoking video. Exploring the unholy antics of a fictional televangelist, the promo provided a taster of the mildly religious themes that furnish ‘Afraid Of Heights’.‘Afraid Of Heights’ soars above the scuzz of 2010’s ‘King Of The Beach’.
From a casual first listen Afraid of Heights revises little in Nathan Williams’ recipe for the noisy, apathetic surf rock of Wavves’ August 2010 release King of the Beach — a record that cornered a spot for the band on many album of the year lists and as a mainstay of summer festivals for the past two years. Williams’ knack for making hooky power-chord punk songs fronted by his repetitive, intoxicating nasal drone is alive and well. What has changed is the depth of his lyrical apathy and hopelessness, trading lines like “I’m just having fun with you” and “You’re never gonna stop me” for “first we gotta get high and sail to the sun / chances are none, we’ll all die alone just the way we live / in a grave.
For a long time, it seemed as if music was very much a secondary feature of Wavves, a band that started life as a solo project for frontman and principal songwriter Nathan Williams. Whether it was his now infamous on stage meltdown at Primavera back in 2009, or a painfully try-hard demeanour related to the public via interviews and his Twitter account, Williams seemed intent on crafting some sort of image for the band, although it wasn’t particularly apparent what that was. Drugged up bad boy? Pot addled slacker? Irrespective, their third full-length, King of the Beach, was enough to remind us quite why the blogosphere had paid Wavves so much heed in the first place; a wonderfully tight collection of pop punk songs that proved that a little bit of polish can go an awfully long way.
The talking points of Nathan Williams’s story since the inception of his Wavves project have often overshadowed the body of work itself. Tales of his humble, slacker beginnings in a San Diego tool shed to a drug-addled emotional breakdown, bar fights with veteran gatekeepers of the scene, frequent band turnover and a relationship with his beach-loving female counterpart dominated the headlines over his first couple of years. But amidst the gossip, Williams recorded two early albums that received significant praise from many, and corresponding backlash from others, that earned him a “next big thing” tag.