Friday, December 31, 2010

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 12/31/10 - Wavves and The Mummies

I first caught up with Wavves through a small batch of 7” records back in 2009. At the time I thought they sounded fairly hep and worth the effort, but for no tangible reason I didn’t end up hearing any of their LPs until fairly recently. Listening to all three with fresh ears and in such close proximity definitely spotlights the huge leap made by Wavves’ main guy Nathan Williams on the most recent record KING OF THE BEACH, but it also helps in nailing down certain common themes. The first two Wavves long-players were the product of a duo featuring Williams and ex-drummer Ryan Ulsh, and the mixture of accessible, at times even catchy pop songs drenched in the counterpoint of dense, noisy, off-kilter, low-fidelity production finally felt more like the result of a bedroom home-taper’s “project” (in a good way) than the workings of a two-person “band”. At their best, the early Wavves reminded me a bit of Columbus, OH’s Times New Viking attempting a scaled down approximation of UK shoe-gaze. 2009 was a tough year for Williams, with personal turmoil causing Wavves to fall apart and be rebuilt as a trio featuring bass and drums courtesy of Stephen Pope and Billy Hayes, both vets from the band of the late Jay Reatard. As a result KING OF THE BEACH feels like a strong, solid, professionally recorded rock album, though still invested with enough quirks to help it stand apart. For a while now some folks have been drawing comparisons between Wavves and The Beach Boys, and though that’s not at all inappropriate, it does need some qualifying. Yes, a whole bunch of this new one is clearly linked to the endless fount of ‘60s pop, with a specific line of inspiration leading to Spector-derived girl group sounds, but I don’t hear anything beyond an occasional vocal flourish that overtly conjures comparison to Brian Wilson and Co. Instead, The Beach Boys influence seems most detectable in songwriter Williams’ mode of operation, in how he keeps it relatively simple, catchy, direct and concise. This strain of indebtedness to The Bros. Wilson and ‘60s-style pop in general is in the same grand tradition as The Ramones, with BEACH giving off a heavy whiff of hyperactive melodiousness that’s congruent to the Cali beach-punk impulse, most prominently on the snarky “Idiot” and the pogo-ready “Post Acid”. But there are other tricks in store, with “Take on the World” feeling a bit like a lost Robert Schneider-helmed nugget from the early days of the Elephant 6, and “Convertible Balloon” presenting a flakier, harder to tag form of smart-alecky avant-pop. But it’s “Mickey Mouse” that comes strongest out of left field, beginning with a sly loop of the opening of The Crystals’ stone-classic “Da Doo Ron Ron” and quickly rising to an Animal Collective/Panda Bear zone of advanced contemporary psych wrangling. It’s surely true that the murkier, more underground manifestations of Wavves’ earlier sound only appear in intermittent flashes, but in my estimation that’s okay; Williams seems better suited for pop songwriting than being a low-fi maestro, and if he keeps his ear to the grindstone he could potentially hang with esteemed contemporary company like Girls’ Christopher Owens. If so, that’d make Williams Joey Ramone (or Dee Dee, take yr pick) to Owens Elvis Costello, and that’s what I call an attractive proposition for the future.

There are days when I think The Mummies were the best straight-up rock band of the ‘90s. It’s on those days that I find myself in complete emotional synch with the notion that rock is best when it’s blunt, pissed and over the top. And The Mummies are all of those things in spades. There was an idea floating around in the post-grunge ‘90s that the essence of “punk” had finally broken through on some mass level thanks to the largely retro-rocking then bursting out of the Pacific Northwest. Well, time and common sense has shown that notion to be a bogus one, and that the ‘90s bands to best exemplify the eternal punk aesthetic remained steadfastly underground, often by design, and San Francisco’s The Mummies were most assuredly punk in all its unhyphenated glory. NEVER BEEN CAUGHT, originally released in 1992 on LP only, is one of the defining texts of ‘90s oppositional underground activity. While the era’s reigning locale for nostalgia fell to the ‘70s and on elements as disparate as hard rock and disco, The Mummies defiantly and arrogantly struck out for the pre-Beatles ’60s, plumbing the depths as heights of garage rock at its primal (some might say primate) best, and even occasionally harkening all the way back to the start of the whole damned thing, the 1950s, gleaning tough lessons from teachers as diverse as Eddie Cochran and Bo Diddley. What continues to make digging The Mummies such a pure gas is the bloody-fingered zealousness of the band’s attack, which fully absorbed post-’77 levels of aggro in a manner similar but in no way beholden to Thee Mighty Caesars/Thee Headcoats-era Wild Billy Childish. Also, these foul-mouthed gents grappled well with smart cover choices, so sticklers should be well impressed by their treatment of The Young Rascals’ “Come On Up”, and anybody that’s been smacked around but good by the majesty of The Sonics will get served up all over again by their grand rendering of “Shut Down”. It’s true that the magnetic stench of The Mummies is an experience best had in the heavily bandaged flesh, and that fact leads to personal regret. Sadly, I never saw The Mummies, who flamed bright and brief, throw it down in a live setting, and while musing upon that gaping hole in my education can leave me rather sullen, I can at least take solace that NEVER BEEN CAUGHT is the next best thing to having been there. The take-no-prisoners, fully costumed style of the band is in blatant celebration of a time when rock ‘n’ roll was little more than cultural detritus, the soundtrack of teenagers across the land. It was a time when a band called the Pirates dressed up like pirates. Matey. And as such, The Mummies’ total package was and still is a very punk line-in-the-sand. Once, when having a marathon long distance phone chat with an old friend who’d just visited San Fran way back when The Mummies were still extant, I enthused about the band and how I was chomping at the bit to see them play and to hear more of the records. My friend scoffed and dismissed them as “dumb” music. For a moment, I was ready to argue, but instead just casually registered my disagreement and decided to change the subject. For like Gene Vincent in ’56, The Sonics in ’65 and The Damned in ’77 you either got The Mummies in ’92 or you didn’t. Dumb? Yeah, like a fox…..

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