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White Privilege, Warped Nostalgia: Asher Roth & Wavves

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Asher Roth meet Nathan Williams. He’s way more “hip-hop” than you and he even doesn’t rap–he barely even sings (more like apathetically shouts). Williams’ music as WAVVES (he’s got a alternate persona like a rapper) is aggressively lo-fi, uglified variations on surf guitar lines, Phil Spector drums, and Beach Boys harmonies (in short, he samples music of the past), that break-down the life of relative comfort and apathy that Roth not only takes for granted but raps about pridefully and at times, oddly assertively (the “Motherland” stuff, his whole schtick that he buys rap CDs so they should “relate” to him, etc).

Just as Roth’s taken the signs and signifiers of college life (beer pong, Thirsty Thursday, Freshmen jokes) and translated them into short-hand for environment, in something of an attempt to parallel “candy paint” or “wood grain” or whatever rap signifiers ground the music in reality and also move it into mythology, WAVVES has his own series of short-hand environment/milieu idealized-reality images: Goths, weed, the beach, sun, summer.

The difference is, Roth’s exist to bring up that marketable pang of nostalgia if you’re out of college and the weird only-in-2009 self-reflective sense of commemorating the immediate present (constant Facebook photo albums, pointless Twitter updates) if you’re still in college, while Wavves is sort of wrestling with his images, using them in part because they’re funny and part because they define his formative years for better and worse and he feels somewhat fucked-up about it all.

I think it’s what Daniel Krow meant when he referred to WAVVES’ coating of fuzz and buzz atop music that invokes happy-sad-hippy-dippy surf and beach music as “warped nostalgia”. Roth too, works up a kind of “warped nostalgia” but it’s warped towards coming-off better and less emotional and the result’s not the tangle of “wow, the past was so much fun and freeing compared to my sad in-my-twenties present” and “wow the past was more fucked-up than I realized” of WAVVES (or many a successful rapper’s drug-deal reminisce) but, as Ian Cohen of Pitchfork put it, a “laughably out-of-touch account of campus culture”.

WAVVES’ best songs are this odd mix of satire and sadness (“Gun in the Sun”, “So Bored”) but when he’s not doing that, he’s pushing out an assembly of vague but loaded images and phrases (“got no car, got no money” from “No Hope Kids”, something about a “head full of….blow” from “Surf Goths”) that work up to the mythos of the dark (but not “dark”, mind you) image of suburbia and the “punk rock” ethos that build-up in response to it all.

Musically too, it’s an assembly of not quite there but powerful quotes from genres and alternative movements of the past. The fucked-up sixties pop thing’s obvious or talked-about enough (put The Microphones Glow Pt. 2, Fennesz’s Endless Summer and Wavvves and you’ve got a sound that captures sixties pop sideways way better than The Shins–are those guys still cool?–or even Animal Collective really) and WAVVES is as much a 90s indie/alt throwback, not-quite throwback and interpreter of Brian Wilson and friends.

Wavvves feels like 90s indie when the sound wasn’t quite so cute and soft and because shit like 120 Minutes or even Beavis & Butthead existed, one didn’t have to clean-up the sound to get the touches of popularity that car commercials and Urban Outfitters compilations now bring about. You’d get some late-night MTV shine and people still bought CDs and “hipsters” cared about mail order and junk. Now, not so much, and it’s why WAVVES’ merging of throwbacks is so fascinating and out-of-step and super-popular.

The best proof of this is the fact that a stack of Wavvves LPs sat at the Durham, North Carolina Urban Outfitters when I was there last week and it seemed jarring because there’s no way they’re sticking the album in their CD shuffle for fear that “Rainbow Everywhere” or “Killer Punx, Scary Demons” might pop-up between MGMT or that N.A.S.A album but they’re selling it anyways. In a sense, WAVVES is radically individual music because it really refuses to occupy any of the relatively marketable genres of indie or alternative music. Not really “noise pop” and certainly not indie pop and not avant-garde noisey enough to satisfy the No Fun Fest crowd…it’s popular music entirely built on its own terms.

And a big part of Williams’ terms involve satire. That’s really the best way to look at the WAVVES project, as satire, just not the knowing, smug Daily Show satire that’s praised on your favorite lifestyle blog, but like, the laughing to keep from crying, implicative kind. “Gun in the Sun”, between grinding guitar and in-the-red backing vocals, shouts “I’m just a guy with nothing to do/I’m just a guy with something to say” basically mocking Roth’s belief that his Peace Studies 101-isms possess actual profundity and taking shots at Williams himself and a whole group of fuck-around because they can kids with guitar and a head full of “you can do anything”s from their Moms.

Then, “Gun in the Sun” floats away and coming in really, a second or two too soon is “So Bored” which is full of pathos and mocks pathos at the same time. Upon hearing “So Bored” initially, the song sounded great but empty in a Roth-like self-justifying way, but that’s not true at all. It’s convenient to only hear that “I’m so bored” exclamation and ignore the next line, a half-suicidal “Life’s a chore”. Imagine the mockery/investigation of white privilege and “alt” lifestyle of Vampire Weekend but enjoyable and invigorating.

“Bored” is the other voice of suburban Mom, not telling you your special since Kindergarten, but stepping-in at the worst moment to ask what you’re gonna do with your life, bitching about how much your liberal arts college tuition is (but scoffing at state colleges), or expressing angered concern at your lack of up-and-go. Pitchfork was wise to connect Wavvves to the tradition of Blues but that’s a little too sincere for what Williams is doing, and given the joy he exhibits meeting Bun B here or the fact that his Ghost Ramp blog is basically a casual hip-hop blog, he’s doing something closer to rap’s mix of heart-on-the-sleeve despair and Pimp C-esque guffaws at the retardation of self and those around him. WAVVES is out on Fat Possum but would Rap-A-Lot give him a call?

Written by Brandon

May 6th, 2009 at 10:50 pm

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  1. [...] low-stakes and well, he made a record as poppy and light as Beach Fossils or whoever. Lastly, I was comparing Williams to a rapper and gasp, close-reading his lyrics back when the only hype about the guy was, “Why is there [...]

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