It wasn’t hype, youth, or a careless approach to spelling that’s made San Diego lo-fi band Wavves so divisive for the past couple years. Those things never help (hurt?), obviously, but mostly it was that everything about Nathan Williams’ home-recording project felt so casual. And while the immediacy of his sloppy, hollering-into-a-laptop’s-internal-mic approach made for some perfectly snotty, adolescent pop, it also resulted in an equal amount of half-stoned noise goofs that were included, it seemed, just to get his first record to album-length. Then he released another LP, mere weeks after the first taste of fame, the sole aesthetic development of which being an extra V in its title. It was all pretty punk, sure, but in this case, Johnny Rotten’s immortal rhetorical, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?,” was a little too easy to answer. So, when a behind-the-scenes narrative about public drug freak-outs, indie-rock bar fights, and a young dude just generally losing his shit in the spotlight started outpacing all that instant critical acclaim, let’s just say that concerned empathy was not the default response.
As the title track to Wavves new record, King of the Beach, starts spinning, it’s clear that this isn’t going to be Wavvvves. Recorded in a real studio with Modest Mouse producer Dennis Herring, the sound is clean and muscular. It’ll be a hell of a jolt to those who’ve considered Williams’ songwriting mostly fuzz and mirrors to this point: Whereas his early, more formless half-songs got compared to No Age by default, this is closer to the laser-guided garage rock of the late Jay Reatard (whose old rhythm section just happens to be Wavves’ current touring band).
Though the record is more nimble musically, its themes remain stunted to teenage immediacy—Nintendo, beaches, water fights, being dumb, feeling lame and vaguely guilty. With the feedback peeled off, the banality of the pop-punk hooks is even more apparent. There are times when Williams might be a couple of bodily function jokes away from accidentally writing a Blink 182 single. But there’s a dark undercurrent to the words too—self-deprecation bordering on self-hate. Lyrics like, “I’d say I’m sorry but it doesn’t mean shit,” or “All my friends hate my guts,” feel like internalized responses to pages upon pages of Internet comments berating him for various fuck-ups.
During “Take on the World,” Williams sings, “I still hate my music, it’s all the same.” Encouragingly, that seems like one self-inflicted zing he’s taken pains to correct. King of the Beach’s middle section swings from shuffling near-ballads, to deranged bubblegum pop, to hooky, low-key synth that could be described with made-up nightmare terms like “chill-wave doo-wap.” It’s not all great. Eyes roll as he breaks out the Phil Spector “Be My Baby” drumbeat for the eighteen-millionth time. Crazed, muppet-voiced backing vocals occasionally make Woods’ Jeremy Earl sound comparatively normal. And yeah, sometimes the dumbness of it all just overwhelms everything else. But for a third record, it’s not a bad start.