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.