The title and packaging of the new Wavves EP, Life Sux, seem almost like the type that you’d see on a classic hardcore punk album. The lettering and symbols that adorn the front cover conjure up images of shirtless punks with shaved heads in a sweaty club, screaming lyrics filled with violence and self-hatred alongside dark, harsh, ferocious instrumentals while a violent crowd moshes fervently in the foreground. This almost seems like tongue-in-cheek sarcasm referencing the EP’s actual content. Rather than taking a more ferocious, depressed turn away from last year’s brash beach punk gem King of the Beach, Nathan Williams instead turns the amplifiers up to eleven and the smirks up to twelve, slathers on an extra layer of gloss, and even brings in a couple of indie rock heavy-hitters to help him out on 2011’s release. The result is a far more polished and pop collection of songs that tread entertaining – if a little familiar and inconsistent – waters, but sadly also reveal a few chinks in Wavves’s armor.
The opener, “Bug,” sets the theme for the worthwhile tracks on the EP – shout-outs to rock giants old and new. It’s not hard to see that, through the sloppy, high-velocity lead riff that kicks off the song and the shamelessly referential title, Williams is paying tribute to Dinosaur Jr. and seems pretty proud of it. Even the song’s content – a spiteful send-up of that one friend who’s “no fun” and “just dumb” – seems to be pretty close to J Mascis’s easily relatable stories told through simple words. It’s worth noting how Bug echoes classic tracks like Freak Scene and Let it Ride, but what’s really striking about the song is how urgent it feels. King of the Beach was a relatively laid-back record, but Life Sux takes things in a more energetic direction.
The next alt-rock legend tribute, “I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl,” slides in with a sugary-sweet pop melody and keeps the momentum rolling without so much as a hiccup. This song may not sound as much like signature Wavves, but it reveals what’s so charming about them and what sets them apart from other bands. The slick pop melody juxtaposed against the noisy guitars, and the lyrics – which eventually evolve into “I wanna be Dave Grohl” – genuinely give off the feel of a young, energetic band that’s not afraid to sing pure pop melodies or muse about their rock star fantasies, all while playing loud punk rock. Hitting the indie rock big time hasn’t ruined their attitude, it’s merely given them a vehicle with which to launch their tunes into the stratosphere. “Still never gonna stop me,” Williams sneers in the song’s coda. This song characterizes a lot of Wavves’s appeal – the charm that comes from this brash, self-assured, uncaring energy.
The claims made by “I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl”’s music and lyrics are given weight and power in the next track – the EP’s shining, gorgeous centerpiece, “Nodding Off.” “Nodding Off” features Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino on backing vocals and Bobb Bruno playing the guitar solo in the outro. This song is the big high point that King of the Beach never had. The fuzz bass and gigantic, yet playful beat that kick the song off echo some of the best moments on King of the Beach (“Baseball Cards“, “Mickey Mouse“), but the extra layer of gloss and even higher-fi production give the track much needed room to stretch and breath. The forgivably bratty and nonchalant melody and lyrics solidify even more of Wavves’s charm. It sounds here, more than ever, as if Nathan Williams is, all at the same time, parodying, paying tribute to, and attempting to create perfect pop music – and the result is unique and incredible. Bethany Cosentino’s sweet and uncharacteristically powerful backing vocals in the chorus and Bobb Bruno’s unusually searing leads rocket this song into outer space. In essence, it’s a perfect marriage of Best Coast and Wavves’s talents. Wavves’s brash energy and Best Coast’s lovely, innocent pop sensibility combine to create one hell of a perfect beach pop song.
Sadly, the EP takes a turn for the worst after the fantastic first half. Just as “Dave Grohl” and “Nodding Off” remind of why we love Wavves, “Poor Lenore” reveals some of their sad, but obvious flaws. While Wavves are perfect at delivering fast, punky slices of beach pop, it’s no secret that slower and more sophisticated tracks are their Achilles’ heel. As far as the song itself goes, it has the same sort of everything as just about everything Wavves has done over the last two years, but it lacks one particular element – the exuberant, unbridled energy. This reveals a serious weakness in Wavves compared to other bands. They lack Best Coast’s ability to create sensations of love, heartbreak, and longing, and they lack Girls’ beautiful sonic palette and aching nostalgia. Because of this, while they can certainly craft entertaining pop rock songs, they seemingly don’t have the ability to make slower songs impactful at all. Tracks like this (not to mention several from King of the Beach) reveal that while Wavves are fantastic at doing what they do most of the time, they’re kind of a one-trick pony, sliding by on attitude, energy, and volume, but lacking in sophistication and artistry – almost like a pop-punk band for the indie rock generation.
After the dreadful, momentum-destroying “Poor Lenore”, the closing tracks—”Destroy”, featuring members of Fucked Up, and “In the Sand”, a live bonus track—feel a little dry and formulaic, even when taken on their own. Damian Abraham’s vocal in the second verse of “Destroy” offers a worthwhile twist to an otherwise unremarkable song, but there’s little keeping “In the Sand” from sounding pleasant but completely unmemorable.
In the end, Life Sux is a bit of a bittersweet release. While the worthwhile – and it is fantastically worthwhile – first half of the release serves as a consolidation and a summary of Wavves’s unique appeal, the lesser tracks in the record’s second half strike at some of the big, obvious dents in their armor. While the blows may not be deadly, they make one wonder just how long the “king of the beach” can sit on his throne before he gets pulled down by his own shortcomings.
RiYL: Wavves already, Buzzcocks, cartoons, Best Coast, Girls, Male Bonding
Recommended Tracks: “I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl”, “Nodding Off”