Although Wavves new album has been released on Mom + Pop records in affiliation with Warner Bros., whom I’m assuming are handling the distribution, there was no record company involvement in the making of this record. The group, which now consists solely of guitarist/vocalist Nathan Williams and bassist Stephen Pope, hired producer John Hill themselves and Williams actually paid him out of pocket to eliminate the involvement of a record label, so that they could make Afraid of Heights independently, not unlike when an independent filmmaker makes a film without the involvement of a studio. All of that being said, Afraid of Heights is easily the group’s biggest production to date with everything about the lo-fi/surf rock band having been beefed up and rendered larger than life.
In terms of Hill’s production, he’s essentially done for Wavves what Butch Vig has done in the past for Green Day and Nirvana, which is to say that he’s gotten a somewhat cleaner sound out of the group and made their less than commercial chord progressions sound entirely larger than life while making their vocals truly shine, riding high on the group’s best melodies yet. You can certainly hear the influences of the Pixies, early Weezer and Dinosaur Jr., but the Beach Boys influence is stronger here than on their past releases, the harmonies truly shining.
“Woo-ooh-ooh-ooh,” goes the harmony that gets the title track, “Afraid of Heights,” off to a smooth and winning start. “I’ll always be on my own, always be on my own,” Williams sings during the chorus. It might be meant to be pessimistic, but it sounds entirely refreshing. Besides, we know that Williams is in a relationship with Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino so you don’t exactly believe him when he expresses such a fear anyway. His lyrics sound more genuine during the track, “Demon To Lean On,” which finds him singing, “The truth is that it hurts, and what’s it really worth, no hope and no future,” just before the chorus that goes, “holding a gun to my head, so send me an angel, or bury me deep where you stand with demons to lean on.” If someone played you this track and asked you who it sounded like you’d certainly say Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. The only trouble here is that Wavves are always using satanic symbols on their album covers and such, so it seems a bit odd for them to want an angel; one should think they’d be begging for the demons first and foremost.
One of the album’s strongest tracks is opener “Sail To The Sun,” which opens with chimes that sound like something snatched directly out of Brian Wilson’s dreams. “Woo-ooo-oooee-ooo,” goes part of the lovely harmony. It’s almost ironic that the chorus talks about us all dying and ending up “in a grave, in a grave, in a grave,” which Williams sings repeatedly. But that’s apparently just what happens when you’re influenced by Nirvana’s angst and apathy.
Most of the album’s 13 tracks are enticing, but there are occasional missteps. “Mystic,” for example, features barely audible vocals and sounds much more lo-fi than anything else on the rest of the album. In fact, I wonder if Hill actually produced this track because it doesn’t sound up to the standard he’s set on the vast majority of these songs. The sad thing is that “Mystic” could have been truly great. The drums and the clapper interact nicely and one should think it could have been quite the stomper if they were louder in the mix. It could have been something even on par with the mighty Sleigh Bells. Almost as disappointing is “Dog,” another track that doesn’t quite seem to live up to its potential. “Still I’ll be your dog,” Williams sings over and over, barely making an effort. If he sang it with a bit more gusto, and perhaps had some backing vocals behind him, it could have easily been one of the group’s best songs yet. To that end, it often seems like Afraid of Heights is more about the band wanting to make you see their potential rather than the band actually living up to said potential.