Wavves / Wavvves
(Fuck it Tapes / Fat Possum; 2008 / 2009)
By Christopher Alexander | 6 April 2009
If Kurt Cobain never listened to Black Sabbath, he probably would’ve written songs like Nathan Williams does now. The critic (and trained guitarist) can’t help but notice the similarities in their writing: startling, Beatle-esque changes made entirely from rudimentary first position and barre chords; modulations that owe more to the dots on the neck than the circle of fifths; melodies cribbed from bubble gum records that still sit uneasily in flat keys. As Wavves, Williams does the courtesy of listing Nirvana as a primary influence, although it’s clear he means the International Pop Underground-infatuated Cobain and not the arena rock anthem-writing one; Williams also names the Wipers and the Breeders, and it’s clear he’s spent time with the Vaselines as well. Still, even at their most melodic and jangly (one dares suggest twee) there’s a narcotic sourness underlying these songs. He believes in the punk rock whoah, and there are plenty of whoah-oh-oh’s to prove it, but there’s something prickly underneath them, and much more insular than his singalongs suggest. At times it seems like he’s flying by the seat of his pants (and he is flying, in senses both victorious and hydroponic), but his songs are never ill-considered. There’s a craftsmanship to all but the noisiest experiments on both his albums. It’s as if Williams took the defiantly unwashed, impulsive, and abrasive aesthetics of punk rock as an artistic challenge rather than as liberation, much like Cobain.
Much unlike Cobain, however, he really can’t sing. Enter the genre of noise-pop. The recent resurgence of lo-fi and cassette trading is easy to understand—the recordings are inexpensive, the concomitant distortion also compresses the sound to a satisfactorily loud level, said levels offset any deficiencies of performance, and in the era of file-trading it provides a tangible document—hard currency in an era where everyone has lost their theoretical money. The question is: at what cost? On wax, Williams throws his voice through a chain of chorus and distortion pedals, which not only masks a weak timbre and command of pitch but has the effect of making his vocals intense. It supplies the singalongs, provided one has the patience to wade through his albums repeatedly. So much distortion and compression can make Wavves and Wavvves difficult listening—the experience is rather like listening to a concert while submerged in a swamp. Whether or not it’s preferable to see Wavves live is debatable: Williams’ voice and his shaky falsetto are deal-breakers to some, but this reviewer was much more stunned to discover there were actual tunes underneath the scuzz, good ones. It became a kind of Rosetta Stone for his albums. (There is a live version of “Sun Opens My Eyes” floating around that is unquestionably preferable to the one on Wavvves, but this is more a case of a song finding its feet on the road.)
As the title might suggest, Wavvves is more or less a rehash of Williams’ first cassette, the Ring to Wavves‘ Ringu. As such, the original recipe is to be preferred. The second album has the more obvious and combustible singles: “I’m so Bored” traces a surprisingly straight line from the Clash through the Riveras, while “No Hope Kids” makes an uncomfortable equation of hopelessness and possessionlessness (a word). But there’s nothing on the second album that comes close to the 1-2-3 punch of “California Goth” (an affectionate swipe at his social and artistic circle: “We are the perfect people, we are a match [...] I am a perfect person, I am a catch”), “Wavves,” and “Lover.”
The first album also has more ideas. “Vermin” is a tense, minor key dirge recalling the Breeders’ first album, and “Lover” has a dash of post-punk skronk that appears to be abandoned on Wavvves. It’s worth mentioning that the records were released eight months apart: considering Williams has hit a sound early, perhaps sticking with the blueprint is the best idea. It certainly doesn’t fail him—the moody Goth triptych is highlight, and the superficially buoyant “Gun in the Sun” finds a notch in the ground to create something more genuinely strange than free-form noise experiments like “More Fur” and “Space Radar.” Unsurprisingly, Williams gets on well with the Smell crowd; but while his music is certainly of the place, it’s also completely unique, and these two records (coupled with the excellent “Weed Demon” single, reprised on the second album at some length) herald a major talent.