Wavves, washing onto the shore of the Alternative Nation | Music Essay | Indy Week
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Afraid of Heights, Wavves' fourth album and major-label debut, makes the band more palatable and layered without diluting its snot-nosed charm.

Wavves, washing onto the shore of the Alternative Nation 

When I was a kid, few albums seemed as ubiquitous as Green Day's Dookie, the major-label debut for the California punks.

For a generation of suburban youth raised with snotty role models like Bart Simpson and Kevin McCallister, Green Day's snarky, hooky pop-punk was irresistible. We were too young to understand the album's themes of mental instability and masturbation, but we were certainly old enough to cherish the disapproving looks on our parents' faces. "If you want to hear cussing," a fellow 8-year-old blessed with MTV access told me, "you'll love Green Day."

We grew up with Dookie, but as its themes started to make more sense, the disc survived rounds of musical purging—baby's first nostalgia, I suppose. In high school, every sophomore with a Strat learned "Longview." And all of us without one shouted back, "When masturbation's lost its fun, you're fuckin' lonely," placing special emphasis on the second and seventh words.

Other records come close: Nevermind opened the door for the newfangled "alternative rock," but it arrived a couple years too soon for kids of my age to appreciate its true impact. Weezer's Blue Album sported its share of influential hits, and Oasis' (What's The Story) Morning Glory? appeared in the Case Logic CD wallets of many friends. Still, none of these albums seemed to permeate our preadolescent zeitgeist like Dookie. (Hell, it was called Dookie; what 8-year-old could resist?)

We were second-wave immigrants of Alternative Nation: Our musical awakenings only achieved near-Nirvana. Wavves, the band founded in 2008 by 26-year-old Californian Nathan Williams, stirs that same feeling.

Williams has long found his sweet spot with simple melodies and simpler power chords. Lyrically, he's turned sardonic self-loathing (and well-publicized hydrophobia) into selling points. Even the murky, no-fi albums he self-recorded while unemployed and living with his parents found Williams, at his best, turning stoned boredom into unlikely anthems. For 2010's King of the Beach, they enlisted Modest Mouse producer Dennis Herring to sharpen the hooks and polish the edges, ultimately cutting an album that made Wavves more palatable without diluting Williams' slack-motherfucker persona.

Afraid of Heights—Wavves' fourth album and major-label debut, via the Sony subsidiary Mom + Pop—takes another step, with Rihanna and M.I.A. producer John Hill adding more layers still. But Wavves manage to maintain their snot-nosed charm the way Green Day managed to do so two decades ago with Dookie producer Rob Cavallo. "Afraid of Heights" nods to Rivers Cuomo, with Williams drooling "Woke up and/ Found Jesus/ I think I must be drugged," in a melody that momentarily mirrors Weezer's "Say It Ain't So." The circuitous power chords and neurotic lyrics of "Lunge Forward" and the many Wavves songs like it don't need a daytime talk show host to determine their parentage, either.

Standout "Demon to Lean On" is a perfect model of Williams' punchy pop smarts. A loping line on acoustic guitar opens space for the inevitable burst of drums and distortion—a trick borrowed from Nirvana by way of every alt-ish rock band since The Pixies.

At the song's peak, Williams moans, "We're probably just dumb/ The truth is that it hurts/ And what's it really worth?/ No hope and no future."

In other words, he's fuckin' lonely, too.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Second-wave surfer."

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