Up until now, it was easy to paint Nathan Williams into a corner. After three full length albums of infectiously juvenile surf punk with Wavves, the San Diego songsmith seemed to be well suited to his budding reputation as the indie world’s deputized punk rock wunderkind, complete with an irascible temperment perfectly suited to his loud, bratty odes to slack culture and adolescent malaise. Between his well publicized onstage meltdown, fighting with the likes of the Black Lips, and cranking out some of the most brazenly purile music going today, Williams was quickly cultivating a brash, rock and roll personality that was easy to paint in broad strokes and becoming difficult to escape.
We say up until now because Sweet Valley, Williams’ first official musical endeavor outside of the Wavves moniker, doesn’t just step delicately outside of his wonderfully ragged comfort zone with one foot, but rather obliterates the mold by moving in the diametrically opposite direction. Whereas Wavves’ music happily submerged itself in healthy amounts of torrid guitar rancor, Sweet Valley is the Jekyll to Wavves’ Hyde, mashing up bits and pieces of pop, rock, hip-hop, and chamber music into its own mellowed, tripped out musical stew. Fans looking for King of the Beach redux can search elsewhere. Instead, try DJ Shadow in reverse on mushrooms.
But while Stay Calm, Williams’s first Sweet Valley release alongside his brother Joel, takes his music in a jarring and unforeseen direction, it’s not a total departure from his Wavves catalog. Gone is the lion’s share of the three-chord guitar attack and Williams’ snearing vocals, but Sweet Valley retains Williams’ penchant for hazy, sunsoaked surf and psychedelia. As such, Stay Calm carves out its own distinct identity while sharing just enough thread with Williams’ prior work to keep it from making a clean break.
The novelty of watching one of indie rock’s most intriguing and promising talents walk away from his musical bread and butter gives Stay Calm a pretty good hook for curious fans to latch onto, but while good in stretches, the album doesn’t fully take advantage of such a strong foundation. There’s some pretty strong stuff with some legit staying power (“Malibu Games”), other stuff that registers a shrug of the shoulders at best (“Drunk Dreams”) and still others that almost beg your itchy iPod trigger finger to skip forward (“Final Zone” ). But while it hits and misses, it’s ever intriguing, and Williams deserves a nod for reaching outside the box.
The record opens with a brief but fitting intro in “Valley Viking”, whose grandiose horn props the record up with a distinct “Are you ready?” type feel, the first indication that this isn’t your mom and dad’s Wavves record. Following a twisted, doo wop intro, “Total Carnage”, the album’s first proper track, settles into a jaunty surf meets dancehall vibe, bouncing along leisurely for two and a half minutes. The rest of Stay Calm is similarly cracked in a relaxed, chilled out way, playing like the soundtrack to a tweaked out beachside stroll. While Wavves nestles itself in cozily with a finite sound, here Williams dabbles in just about everything he can get his feisty musical hands on, whetting his sonic palette with jazzy walking bass lines (“Suzuka 9 Hours”), big band bombast (“Dunk Dreams”), ambient, Radiohead-style post rock (“Stay Calm”), and lo-fi indie (“Eight”), all tied together by a mellow undercurrent of reggae and surf rock and anchored by skittering hip-hop beats.
With nine songs clocking in at just a shade over 2o minutes in length, Stay Calm is much more an experiment or exercise than some grand artistic statement, and that gives the record an almost all-too-convenient out. Some tracks are winners, others not so much, but the record pops with such enthusiasm and playful, kid-in-a-candy-store type energy that it almost begs you to take it or leave it as you please. Williams has never been one to give too much thought as to what others think of him or his music, not with Wavves and certainly not here. Stay Calm is the sound of a musician having fun and not getting too hung up on the end results. Ultimately Williams is maybe better suited to ear bleeding garage punk, but it’s still fun to follow him on a short detour into unexpected terrain.
Essential Tracks: “Total Carnage”, “Malibou Games”
Feature artwork by Kristin Frenzel & Cap Blackard: