It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
Nathan Williams lives a pretty charmed life, even if the title of his new EP — and the generally frustrated themes of ennui and malaise that pepper much of his catalogue — may indicate otherwise. This is a guy, after all, who can arguably include "getting stoned to The Price is Right and recording Sonic Youth covers" as a part of his job description. In times like these, that's a pretty good way to spend a work day.
Then again, he's an ambitious and prolific young guy who's been put under the intense and unforgiving microscope of the indie music blogosphere. The three years he's spent as a proper recording artist have probably felt to him like quite a few more. Maybe he's just being hard on himself. "No, you'll never get it all," he sings on Life Sux's adrenalized opener "Bug," perhaps speaking to the song's creator. "Not in this world. See the writing on the wall. You're no fun."
And yet, much like 2010's King of the Beach, which positioned Williams's nasally vocal hooks front-and-center in a mix that was positively crystalline compared to his first couple albums, Life Sux is a pop-centric affair. It's actually fun. It's also enjoyably one-dimensional in scope, its half-dozen songs making no bones about their aspirations to reach the kids — via power chords and monster choruses — sitting in the very farthest corners of the arena's nosebleed seats. "I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl" sounds like it could've been written by Dave Grohl; "Bug" is a fist-pumper that would've fit in on Surfer Rosa, "Destroy" features vocals from Fucked Up's Damian Abraham, and even the EP's softer moments ("Nodding Off," "Poor Lenore") are buoyed by big, glorious, fuzzy guitars.
These are all pretty common reference points, but Williams is clearly relishing the chance to pay tribute with these songs. After all, you can't cover Sonic Youth in a haze of weed smoke and game show applause every day. Variety is the spice, as they say. Without it, life would suck.
The Guitar Teacher
Led by another sardonic young man with a bleak attitude and a penchant for loud/soft dynamics, Nirvana changed the pop landscape with their 1991 breakout album. As eMusic's Dave Thompson noted, "Nothing that came before ["Smells Like Teen Spirit"] mattered anymore; nothing that came after could escape its influence," but Williams seems to be taking his guitar cues from Nevermind's less-ubiquitous tracks. While early Wavves six-string tones fell more in line with the "Territorial Pissings" camp, Williams's playing on Life Sux is a direct descendent of the massive distorted walls featured on "In Bloom" and "Stay Away." Those walls, like the ones on Wavves' "Poor Lenore," disappear from view during the verses and come back hard, burying the vocals on the chorus. Sound familiar?
While Williams is happy to crib from Nirvana's guitar tones, his song structures owe a debt to the Jesus and Mary Chain's skyscraper-of-noise classic, Psychocandy. Take the drums from "Never Understand," the melodic sensibilities (but not the tones) of "The Living End"'s guitars, the warm and fuzzy feelings of "The Hardest Walk" and the rhythms of "Taste of Cindy," put Williams's vocals which, to be fair, sound nothing like the Reid brothers over the top, and presto! You've got one of Life Sux's tracks. That the Reid brothers would probably thumb their noses at this music makes it all the better. For all of the very public criticism of Williams's personality, you have to hand it to a guy who puts it out there, gets into fights, wears a baseball cap with the bill flipped up and so on all variations on things that people do before they start caring too much about what anyone thinks.
When Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino sings, "Nothing makes me happy, not even TV or a bunch of weed," on "Goodbye," it quickly becomes clear that she and her lovebird Williams share similar interests. But more than semi-permanent notions of sorrows in their songs and a penchant for recreational TV-and-marijuana binges, these two share a particular music aesthetic as well. Their harmonies and "Be My Baby" drum parts point to classic girl groups, and this, paired with a general love of guitar fuzziness, also points to the aforementioned Jesus and Mary Chain. On Life Sux's "Nodding Off," Cosentino joins in on light, lovely backing vocals that add a certain levity to a song that already sounds like it's about to fly away on the next gust of wind. This isn't their first collaboration, either; the pair released a split 7-inch on Mexican Summer earlier in the year. Seems like only a matter of time until they do a full-length together.
On one of Life Sux's giddy highlights, Williams sings an earworm of a chorus: "I wanna meet Dave Grohl." It's worth noting that an early press release listed the song's title as "I Wanna Be Dave Grohl" and that, by song's end, that's what it sounds like Williams is singing. But as a mid-20s white guy who plays power chords, can you really blame him? When The Colour and the Shape was released, Williams would've been around 10 years old, and songs like "Everlong" and "Monkeywrench" were staples on big rock stations in the San Diego area where he grew up. Playing Life Sux after The Colour and the Shape is like watching a goofy younger brother following his older sibling around, trying to mimic his actions and ending up with his own new thing. "My Hero," indeed.
On Oct. 9, 2009, Jay Reatard tweeted the following [sic]: "Band quit ! Fuck them ! They are boring rich kids who can't play for shit anyways .. Say hello to your ugly and boring wifes..." The late Reatard was a great and gifted songwriter, but he was rarely less than volatile onstage, so this turn of events was hardly shocking. One of the guys parting ways with Reatard was Stephen Pope, who quickly joined Wavves that November. While Reatard's harsh, early, clipped punk rock is worlds away from what Wavves is doing now, his more melodic latter-day songs aren't far off. In a perfect world, one with reconciliations and without overdoses, it seems only fitting that these two acts would one day share a large theatre bill.