Thursday, March 19, 2009

Wavves and the Saturation Point

New York Magazine occasionally runs this graph called the "Undulating Curve of Shifting Expectations." Its purpose is to chart pop culture phenomenon from "buzz" to "backlash" and beyond. I couldn't help but think of this after reading some of the coverage for the latest album from Wavves: Best New Music on Pitchfork, an "A" from the Onion AV Club and even a notice from the paper of record (not records). Wavvves has the good fortune of being released at the "saturation point" of the lo-fi revival that's been gestating in the rock underground for the past couple of years.

This mini-movement was initially a breath of fresh air, especially as a counterpoint to the increasingly slick and studied sounds dominating indieland at the time. It's no coincidence that the revival's early triumphs were released when acts like Sufjan Stevens and The Knife were all the rage. Debuts from the likes of Times New Viking and Jay Reatard were more or less ignored by the larger indie press. (In the case of Mr Reatard, Pitchfork offered a late and rather unconvincing explanation.) As time passed, the movement picked up steam. Bands were signed. Publicists were hired. Money changed hands and soon respected rock critics were trying to explain to their readers why they should buy (or download) records that sounded they were recorded on 1980s answering machine. If it's your job to reflect the zeitgeist, you really don't want to look like you're out of step, and Wavves, G-d bless them, get to reap the benefits.

That said, the album is pretty good. (I've included a song from it on my latest podcast.) An "A" might be an overstatement but a "B+" isn't unreasonable. Nathan Williams writes some insanely catchy songs and has a very good idea how to (self-)produce them for maximum effect. Wavvves has more experimental (read: less melodic) material interspersed throughout the album, but the peaks and valleys give it a certain charm. One could argue that Guided By Voices did the same thing better 15 years ago, but that's not exactly fair.

However, invoking GBV does point out a major difference between the current crop of lo-fi bands and those of the 1990s. Guided By Voices, Pavement, Sebadoh, et al didn't have the option of making a somewhat professional sounding recording on their home computers using GarageBand or Pro Tools. Thus, it's reasonable to conclude that today's bands are making a more self-conscious aesthetic choice to sound like shit. The sentiment of the 90s bands seemed to be that one's songs could recognized as valid no matter what the fidelity of the recording. Today's bands might be more of the philosophy that sounding bad makes their songs good.

There's nothing necessarily wrong what. I personally find the ultra-compression that most modern records employ to be much harder on the ears than any amount of tape hiss and/or distortion. Plus, if we're being honest, most of the aforementioned 90s bands probably didn't have to sound quite as poor as they often did. (Try listening to some of those Sentridoh records again.) The aesthetic of production is going to be an important aspect of any recording. However, it's just a little phony, especially for something that is ostensibly more authentic by nature.

The backlash will come soon enough, probably just when a really great band like Tyvek releases their debut full-length. Through no fault of their own, they'll wind up getting the brunt of the hate. This is unfortunate but that's the hype machine for you, folks. However, there is an upside. Due to the hype, Times New Viking had their third full-length, Rip It Off, almost universally praised by the rock press despite being their weakest effort to date. I've seen the band in concert and they were pretty amazing. Perhaps some criticism being thrown their way will encourage them to hook up with a sympathetic producer who'll capture their live sound. Being "lovingly fucked with" by Mike Rep might only take them so far. Besides, it's an inevitability in music that if there's a bandwagon, there's going to be people jumping on it. It won't take long for some hacks to realize "Hey, if we sound like this, we'll get some attention." Hopefully, they'll be stopped in their tracks if there's no longer a trend to hop. Discriminating ears will always be able to tell the difference but it's not like those are in abundance.

Incidentally, if you were expecting me to create some pun using "Wavves" in conjunction with "saturation" or the very parabolic curve of the NY Mag graph, you're shit out of luck. I'm just not that clever.

11 comments:

matthew said...

Something about this album falls flat for me and I'm pretty sure its the lo-fi malaise you reference here.
One of the most interesting thing about the thermals these days is that for every single they release, they include lo-fi recordings of album songs to appease fans of their earlier sound. Who ARE these people and why are they such zealots?

PB said...

Personally, I thought The Body, the Blood, the Machine was outstanding. Maybe Times New Viking should hook up with Brendan Canty.

joe said...

can't wait for that new Thermals

joe said...

also, maybe nathan WAVVES dude should have titles his album "Reap it Off"

Ben said...

"However, invoking GBV does point out a major difference between the current crop of lo-fi bands and those of the 1990s. Guided By Voices, Pavement, Sebadoh, et al didn't have the option of making a somewhat professional sounding recording on their home computers using GarageBand or Pro Tools. Thus, it's reasonable to conclude that today's bands are making a more self-conscious aesthetic choice to sound like shit. The sentiment of the 90s bands seemed to be that one's songs could recognized as valid no matter what the fidelity of the recording. Today's bands might be more of the philosophy that sounding bad makes their songs good."

I think this is the most valid point of your post, and it's one that I thoroughly agree with (especially that last part). Of course, Wavves and others in this lo-fi resurgence must do something different than GBV and Pavement et all, but I am a little disconcerted by the whole "aesthetics over songwriting" thing. After all, I love "My Valuable Hunting Knife" because it's an awesome song. The Sound of it is a bonus. Some of the bands right now, riding a wave of trendy recording choices I think most powerfully manifested recently in some of the No Age stuff, just don't got it, in my quickly aging opinion. Example: this band Sisters, who I saw at Death By Audio the other night along with an eager crowd. The sounds were cool, the songs were meh. Eventually it'll come back around, as it always does, but hey man, it's just like any soon-to-be-passed era of music. There are ground-breaking, memorable bands who make strong choices, and there are plenty more who are neither, grabbing an idea and aesthetic and following footsteps already made in the snow. Only time and Paul Bruno can tell them apart.

PB said...

I think another real danger is that listeners will perceive the fidelity of recording as the defining characteristic of a band's work. As someone who grew up collecting Siltbreeze 7"s, I've always generally preferred the raw to the polished when it comes to rock music. It was refreshing to hear a new crop of bands who embraced this philosophy and I've enjoyed some of the records they've produced quite a bit. However, No Age, possibly the most prominent current "lo fi" band, hasn't really thrilled me. That's because, to my ears, No Age is doing something discernibly different than, say, Vivian Girls, who I like a bunch. It's far too easy to say "This is lo-fi, there's for I can conclude X about it and lump it in with Y and Z" without really giving it a listen.

Besides, if one doesn't enjoy the lo-fi sound to begin with, it's only going to build resentment, especially if they're some kind of cultural gatekeeper. I think that's sort of how backlashes work. Not too many minds actually change. The opponents eventually just become louder than the advocates. Sure, there are a few "swing votes" but those people are... you know... squares (even though they're probably hipsters).

Ben said...

guh. I could not disagree with you more when it comes to No Age vs. The Vivian Girls. Vivian Girls are total and complete hacks, and not only that, they make annoying videos. You don't have to be a former member of YES to be in a band, but come-on! Me thinks you have been fooled by their awkward cuteness.

All of that aside, I agree whole-heartedly with your very first statement. I'm not a lo-fi freak, but I certainly worry about the aesthetic becoming THE characteristic, over actual songwriting, and I think in many cases newer bands are getting a ton of ink just because they make something that sounds shitty. This issue is going to become my "old man" issue, I think. But I'm not trying to say No Age and Vivian Girls are making similar music--Same with TNV or Wavves or whomever. These are all different bands. But they're making the same aesthetic choices. I couldn't be happier about that--I like the fuzz, the tape distortion, the broken microphones of all of these recordings (even when they're totally faked or created as a choice not a necessity). My point is, the public, with the help of p-fork etc. etc., gets taken into this idea that these bands are all good because they make shitty recordings. I reject that, completely, and I think you do too. So maybe we can agree on this, no?

PB said...

"My point is, the public, with the help of p-fork etc. etc., gets taken into this idea that these bands are all good because they make shitty recordings"

This was more or less my point. But I already think we've reach the height of this phenomenon, at least in the public's eyes. I could be wrong, but I think we're on the cusp of the down slope or will be there shortly.

Re: Vivian Girls. They certainly have their detractors so I'm not going to take you to task for disliking them. However, calling them hacks is way off base. I don't know them personally nor their intention but I don't believe for a second that anything about the band was premeditated for the sake of popularity. As far as their "awkward cuteness" goes, I don't think their physical attractiveness has anything to do with my enjoyment of their music and to suggest so is belittling of them and me.

dola said...

First off, why is the peace symbol so popular with these bands? I thought it was a TNV thing and now I see the Wavves are incorporating it (at least on their myspace)? The TNV drummer takes fairly liberal-to-radical positions so i'm not going to begrudge him, it's just that recycling a very worn out symbol seems an odd aesthetic choice. Kinda as if they never heard their friend's song "New Age Hippies" before.

One way or another it's nice to see that a label like Fat Possum is able to do well for themselves by having a great ear and some vision. Their younger roster is almost uniformly awesome, and as for the old blues guys, well "You See Me Laughin'" speaks for itself. Independent labels like that are still in the business of music, but you also have more faith that they're in it to release great songs and not great investments. Am i fetishizing the independent labels much? Probably.

Paul are you going to see Thee Ohsees in a couple of weeks?

PB said...

I can't speak for TNV's drummer but I know the Wavves logo you of which you speak is actually a takeoff on the Wipers logo.

I'll give you a "probably" on the Thee Oh Sees show. What is that? April 4th? I can't see that far into the future.

dola said...

Yep, that's Saturday the 4th at the Bell House. It's a launch party for some project by WFMU that sounds worthwhile. Got you written all over it.