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Friday, December 27, 2013

Albums of the Year - #3: Wavves - "Afraid of Heights"

Rating: 9.5/10

"We'll all die alone/just the way we live." So sings Wavves frontman Nathan Williams, the millenials'  new poster child for snot-nosed garage punk, on Afraid of Heights opener "Sail to the Sun." On their latest record, Wavves veered off slightly from their lo-fi surf-rock path, adopting a more grunge-influenced sound and putting more effort into production. The result is the group's most polished, most mature, and in truth most enjoyable album to date. Though 2010's King of the Beach had a carefree, adolescent feel, it was somewhat one-dimensional. Afraid of Heights maintains that energy and youthfulness while also at times venturing off and exploring deeper, more complex psychological themes. Sure, there are still fast-paced, quick punk ditties like "Cop" and "Paranoid." But self-loathing tracks like "Beat Me Up" ("That's the reason why/I love the pain/It makes me wanna die") and "Everything Is My Fault" (see title) add a more profound layer to the music of what was once a decidedly straightforward band. 

Of course, Williams sings some if not most of these lyrics with a wry smile. This tongue-in-cheek delivery is to be expected of the singer, and represents the spontaneous, live-in-the-moment attitudes of the band members. This kind of lifestyle can at times be reckless and self-destructive, which is what some of the songs on Afraid of Heights showcase.

Originally a group known for fuzzy, drugged-out beach rock, Wavves proved this year that not only have their lyrics matured, but their musical ideas have grown as well. The songs on Afraid of Heights have often been likened to '90's acts such as Green Day, Weezer, and even Nirvana. A fluid mix of punk, alternative, surf music, and grunge create a hook-laden album. The apathetic nature of the music and the words coming from Williams's mouth combine to form a sound that appeals to skaters and stoners alike, while also appealing to a young generation dissatisfied with what life's handed them. (Sound familiar?) Perhaps this is where the Nirvana/Green Day/et al. comparisons stem from, as Williams sneers and grumbles his way through thirteen outstanding tracks.

There's also a healthy dose of pure teenage petulance here. On "Lunge Forward," Williams opens with a lacksadaisical "I wake up and stretch my arms/you're f**king boring" before crying out "none of you will ever understand me" later on. The song finishes with a chorus of lethargic "oh-oh's" which sound less than genuiune. While it may seem that Williams is being immature and even neurotic, he's actually criticizing himself, recognizing his flaws by vocalizing them and facing his demons. The same can be said of the title track, the name itself acknowledging one of the Californian's fears. The second verse is about as self-hating as Williams gets: "I'm a creep/You drain me/It's dripping everywhere/I'm ugly/You're boring/I can't act like I care," he sings over a slow crawl of dazed guitars, before jumping into the refrain of "I'll always be on my own/f**ked and alone."  All of this feels so effortless coming from Williams, and that's because it probably is. Part of what makes Afraid of Heights so strong is that it feels so honest, likely because it is honestly how Williams thinks and lives. (If you don't believe me, read some of his interviews or simply check the band's Twitter feed.)

However, the quality of the songs on Afraid of Heights, along with impeccable production work, suggests the amount of time and effort put into making the record starkly contrasts the stoner/slacker theme being portrayed. Each track is more polished than the last, which ultimately puts this record on a higher pedestal than the imperfect, though still excellent, King of the Beach. Williams's ear for hooks has never been more apparent, and Stephen Pope's bass is more thunderous than ever thanks to producer John Hill. The swirling guitars during "Demon to Lean On"'s verses subtlely transform from delicate to roaring for the chorus. "That's On Me," "Sail to the Sun," and "Cop" are all guaranteed earworms, and glorious ones at that. "Gimme A Knife" skips along to a catchy melody and spirited guitar riff, fitting about a dozen quiet-to-loud switches into just three minutes.

When Nathan Williams started dating Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino, many fans expected the latter to grow as a songwriter. If each respective band's latest full-lengths are taken as evidence, it's clear the opposite has occurred. As Best Coast's The Only Place ditched lo-fi and with it much of the group's fun and energy, Afraid of Heights turned out to be the best Wavves album yet. It's so chock-full of garage-punk greatness that two of my favorite songs of the year, bonus track "Hippies Is Punks" and GTA V soundtrack song "Nine Is God," didn't even make the final tracklist. Not a single song, whether it's the hallucinatory "Mystic," the plucky "Dog," or the frantic "Paranoid," could justifiably be cut from the album. Depending on how you approach the record, it can be heard as fun, danceable pop-punk or as confused, disoriented self-loathing grunge. And that's what great albums do, they leave themselves open to several interpreatations, at times radically different ones. All of the cynicism and snark on Afraid of Heights simultaneously agrees and disagrees with the music, lending itself to a variety of ways to experience the record. Whether you're a pothead, a rebel, a disillusioned youth, all of the above, or simply a fan of modern indie-punk, Afraid of Heights was a highlight of 2013.

Key Tracks: "Sail to the Sun," "Lunge Forward" "That's On Me," "Hippies Is Punks (Bonus Track)"

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