Beach Bums

The return of the beach band and of the indie rock slacker.

Nathan Williams has big brown eyes, side-swept bangs, and skinny tattooed arms—he looks a bit like Justin Bieber, if Justin Bieber were the kind of kid who drank vodka from plastic bottles and wanted to beat up Justin Bieber. In 2009, under the name Wavves, the San Diego, Calif., musician (who is now 23) released Wavvves, his second album and one of the year’s most exhilarating rock releases. Encamped in a backyard shed, Williams used GarageBand software to record his fleet, fizzy odes to youthful oblivion, but they came out with a rough-and-tumble feel that one tends to associate with pre-digital recording. The best songs are concise and gratifying, nodding to girl-group beats and Beach Boys harmonies, but they have dirt on their faces and move within a thick, ever-present cloud of sonic filth, like Pig-Pen from Peanuts. Williams’ voice is a wimpy, smart-alecky sneer, and on standout songs like “So Bored” and “No Hope Kids,” he’s able to deliver pretty pop melodies while sounding as if he’s rolling his eyes at pretty pop melodies.

Last week, Williams released his third album, King of the Beach. (It arrived on iTunes on July 1; physical copies will follow in early August.) It would be going too far to call the album polished, but you could say the Wavves sound has been seasoned like a pan—scrubbed up but far from squeaky clean. No backyard sheds were visited in the making of the album: It was recorded with a proper band (Wavves has expanded to a trio with the addition of the late Memphis punk Jay Reatard’s nimble-but-clobbering rhythm section) and produced by Dennis Herring, who has worked with Elvis Costello and Counting Crows and whose résumé also includes scrappy acts that flirt with mainstream success, like Modest Mouse and Brand New.

The first single here is called “Post Acid,” and its euphoric chorus is the kind that 15 years ago might have turned Williams into a minor rock star and today could earn him an early-afternoon Warped Tour slot, if he’d deign to accept a gig that corporate. The chorus consists of two words—”with you”—stretched into nine syllables that vault up and down the scale, punctuated at the end by four guitar stabs that, if the song came with an instruction manual, would be captioned, “Pump fist here.” It’s hard to say whether the chorus is more joyous, though, than the breakdown toward the song’s close, when Williams repeats a boozy, eight-note, soccer-chant-style groan for 15 seconds.

King of the Beach—the cover of which features a cartoon of a mystic wildcat smoking a joint—thrashes and bops around in the sweet spot where Zen acceptance shades into nihilistic abandon and nothing-to-lose invincibility. The first words on the album describe something other than a seaside idyll: “Let the sun burn my eyes, let it burn my back, let it sear through my thighs, I’ll feel wide, wide open.” Rock songs about nowhere kids are nothing new, and Williams’ lyrics often play like a dead-on pastiche of “youthful alienation.” (“Got no God/ Got no girlfriend,” he whined on the last album; “My own friends hate my guts/ So what?” he sings here on “Green Eyes.”) “To take on the world would be something,” Williams declares on one chorus, a would-be rebel who seems to forget his mission mid-sentence. “Something … something … something,” he repeats, his agitation growing vaguer by the second.

Wavves isn’t the only beach-inspired band to emerge in the past few years. There’s also Best Coast (from Los Angeles), Real Estate (from Ridgewood, N.J.), and Beach Fossils (from Brooklyn), which all operate in a similarly reverb-soaked, sunburn-sluggish noise-pop register. Beach House, from Baltimore, have an infinitely more pristine and infinitely less caffeinated sound than Wavves—the music laps gently, but it’s still situated squarely on the shoreline.

This trend is part of a larger vogue for all things Bodhi. “Heritage” surf brands like Ocean Pacific and Body Glove are enjoying comebacks, following on the heels of baja jackets and Oakley Frogskins. In the world of indie rock, though, the beach trend also represents the return, with a sandy-assed vengeance, of the scene’s long-deposed king: the slacker. In recent years, the term “indie-rock” has become less and less meaningful and, not unrelatedly, the genre has grown increasingly professionalized—it’s not just a lifestyle but a career move, with clear (if grail-like) profit streams available in the form of commercial licensing, movie soundtracking, and tours that well exceed the narrow, dingy clubs of old (Arcade Fire are playing two Madison Square Garden shows next month). In 1994, Beavis and Butt-Head watched a Pavement video and famously exhorted the band to “try harder, dammit!” Fastidious, musically ambitious marquee indie-rock acts like Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, and Vampire Weekend need no such spurring.

In an interview last spring, Williams envisioned his dream business move: Stocking the Wavves merchandise table with “surfboards made of weed with, like, Garfield logos on them, probably.” He and his beach-bum cohort may be participating in a fad of their own, but their music and defiant slouchiness also suggest a campaign to deprofessionalize indie-rock: to rough up its edges, slur its speech, and get it so stoned that it sleeps through its job interview.

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