After two eponymous albums of snotty, lower-than-lo-fi punk, Wavves (a.k.a. Nathan Williams) finally steps out of his garage to take in some sun and record a proper rock album. That makes King of the Beach a gamble, and not only because the season for bonfires and beach towels is winding down. A performer like Williams has a lot to lose by releasing what is, by and large, an accessible pop-rock album. It’s not just that scrubbing away the grime and fuzz will expose his songs for what they are; it also takes away the defense of low expectations—at least in theory. King of the Beach boasts a professional production job and a stellar rhythm section (Stephen Pope and Billy Hayes, formerly of Jay Reatard), which means that Williams can no longer claim that he’s just a slacker out to amuse himself with a cheap amp and some pedals.
Unfortunately, Williams half-asses his leap from the collapsing edifice of the lo-fi scene, breaking free of its past-played-out references (Pavement! Guided By Voices!) but opting for a new set of sonic inspirations (Brian Wilson! Phil Spector!) that’s equally familiar. Sure, the pop-psychedelia sound may be a richer medium than dingy grunge asceticism, but that doesn’t mean it’s any fresher. Pinching from Pet Sounds is de rigueur for indie rockers who want bloggers to call them ambitious, so there’s little surprise when Williams tacks an echoing vocal hook onto “Take on the World” as an outro, or elsewhere layers his own sneering vocals like a Beach Boys berserker. Spector’s girl groups are an equally of-the-moment inspiration for bedroom pop-craft, and sure enough, that’s the drum beat from “Be My Baby” booming out of “When Will You Come,” to say nothing of the “sha-la-la” and “ooh-eh-ooh” vocals that seem to pop out of the background on every other track. Even the underlying conceit of grafting those vintage sounds onto a gritty guitar-rock framework marks Williams not as an innovator, but one more voice in an increasingly crowded scene (see this year’s similarly styled releases from Surfer Blood and Best Coast).
Williams will be the first to tell you that he isn’t onto anything new here though. He starts off “Take on the World” with a whiny declaration of inadequacy (“I hate my writing, it’s all the same”) and later, “I hate myself, but who’s to blame?/I guess I’m just see-through.” It’s a typically bratty gesture, but rather than doing anything to shore up his weaknesses as a songwriter, Williams just wraps himself in the comforting thicket of self-laceration, apparently at peace with his critics as long as he can boast that he’d only have worse things to say about himself. Of course, there’s another route: Williams could write music that people wouldn’t want to write off as transparent or derivative, rather than assuming that they will and getting defensive about it. If the opening trio of songs sounds like a cagier rendition of the pre-Dookie Green Day, and the Panda-Bear-meets-the-Shins falsetto of “Mickey Mouse” sounds like a hot warbling mess, that’s no one’s fault but Williams’s. And as he assures in the chorus of “Idiot,” he’d apologize, “but it wouldn’t mean shit.”
Williams takes a tentative run at that approach in the latter half of the album, offering the distorted pop gem “Baseball Cards” as proof that his new musical touchstones are something more than fashionable hat-tips, and “Green Eyes” as a welcome demonstration that the fuzzy guitar theatrics of Wavves albums past can survive a better-than-abysmal production with their basic appeal intact. Though even the highlights are ultimately a mixed testament to William’s talents: “Baby Say Goodbye” blurs the line between ‘60s pop and ‘90s alternative better than any other track on the album, but only Hayes can claim credit for that number. Nearly as good is “Linus Spacehead,” a song contributed by Pope. Wavves-the-band, it seems, has the potential to outlast the beach season, but Wavves-the-mouthpiece-of-a-disgruntled-twentysomething has already wiped out.