What Wavves' Nathan Williams vividly renders on cassette and aluminum isn't the Beach Boys' carefree beachscape, with its bathing beauties, surfboard-wielding Adonises, and pinks-on-the-line drag races. Last year's Wavves (Fuck It Tapes) and new disc, Wavvves (Fat Possum), paint a decidedly grimmer, less idyllic picture: goth zombies everywhere, early 20-something boredom and near-poverty run amok, killer weed buzzes, harsh sunshine melting melodious sound into stunned, sickly noise-puddles, four-track machines plugged into bedroom outlets.
Slamming and contorting surf-rock flourishes into punk rock's mores, Wavves sounds like what modern life often feels like: flustered, insane, and downright out of control — a literal wave of devastation that collapses into a volatile compound. San Diego native Williams' nails-on-chalkboard falsetto — which recalls the hair-raising yowl of Thee Oh Sees frontman John Dwyer to an uncanny degree — only ups the nightmarish ante.
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To be sure, Wavves isn't alone in the über-distorto noise punk-pop milieu. Columbus, Ohio's Times New Viking have built a smash 'n' grab sonic rep of their own, while West Coast duo No Age endeavor to transform their My Bloody Valentine-meets-Black Flag aesthetic into a larger movement centered on an all-ages performance space called The Smell. Germany's Der TPK and countless other international fellow travelers — including, until recently, Seattle/NYC unit Magik Markers — toil in similar, post-Siltbreeze, post-No Wave trenches. This is to say nothing, of course, of those working way below the radar, whose efforts will surface long after their moment has passed (see the present decade's cavalcade of unheralded-in-their-time post-punk reissues).
Solipsistic misery aside, the key difference separating Wavves from its contemporaries is an undeniable bubblegum undercurrent. "Lovers" and "Teenage Super Party," both from Wavves, each cram a spazzed-out eternity of Cali-punk bliss into a minute and a half. But let's consider Wavvves' cracked gems. For all its tape hiss and masticated blare, "Gun in the Sun" is amazingly catchy in an early-'90s Guided By Voices way; the mumbly cat's-cradle chordage and ooo-ahhh-ooos "Weed Demon" beguile. "Summer Goth" oozes with herky-jerky garage-rock riffage and flanged tonal glare that reflects its protagonist's romantic quandary: "Do you really wanna see her?/Do you really wanna let her go?" "Beach Demon" — with its "Going nowhere/Going nowhere/Going nowhere" chorus, trashy drums, rampaging three-chord hook, and determined nihilism — glistens under a heap of lo-fi dross. "Got no God/Got no girlfriend," Williams whines during the flogged fret flail "No Hope Kids" — what passes for an anthem in Wavves' world — but that admission comes across as more matter-of-fact statement than complaint. Self-pity doesn't seep into these no-fi self-affirmations.
The California Wavves
Wavves is scheduled to perform Monday, March 16.
Even an epileptic, experimental exercise like "Rainbow Everywhere" has something to recommend it on a pop level — namely, a snaking keyboard line that intrigues despite the surrounding, suffocating feedback. Williams is an auteur imprisoned, happily (for his listeners, anyway) within the confines of the only production aesthetic he could afford. He scores bonus points for keeping his sunspot-flare flickers almost universally ADD brief; most Wavves songs get in, make their point, and get back out in less time than a television commercial break. That's a crucial quality in a world where time isn't cheap and the wellspring of leaked music never slows to a trickle.
What happens, though, on the fateful day that Williams can afford to escape, when the necessity of jamming econo gives way to laying down tracks in actual studios? Let's hope we never have to find out. Remember, though, Williams has a long row to hoe: He's only 22 years old.