The drum pattern that opens the Ronettes’ Be My Baby was once the most thrilling sound in pop. Now, used in tens, maybe hundreds, of other songs, it’s one of the cosiest – a tip-off that however fuzzed-out or glammed-up the surrounding music is you’re in the safe hands of a pop traditionalist. Its appearance on an indie record – from the Jesus and Mary Chain through the Magnetic Fields to Johnny Boy – is a statement of faith: that certain people and times simply got pop music right.
So I was a tiny bit disappointed to find that same beat on the new Wavves album, King of the Beach. Not because the California one-man band isn’t in hock to the 60s, but because the record mostly downplays its classicism in favour of lyrical snottiness and goofball punky bounce. The Be My Baby track, When Will You Come, is one of a few spots where King of the Beach slows down and I nod off. That damn intro shouts: “Pay attention! This is proper pop!” but I prefer Wavves when he doesn’t telegraph that, when the harmonies sneak past the plasticky guitars and so-what vocals and sucker-punch me with prettiness.
For some, Wavves is infuriating – a mediocre talent given lashings of unearned publicity. Even the ridiculous photoshop-style collage of cat, spliff and horrible font on his album sleeve draws ire. But his mixture of the casual and the classic seems typical of the current moment in indie pop. There are more sunshine and chemicals in his music than in, say, the Vivian Girls or the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, but there’s a similar commitment to the amateur ethos.
To some extent this is a survival strategy. A while ago, the accelerating turnover of blog favourites was a cause for concern: were bands tumbling into the spotlight before they were ready? Now musicians like Wavves are adapting to that reality, and making their unreadiness part of the story. Suggestions that indie borrows too much from its 80s or 90s equivalent miss some of the point. Back then, DIY was an ethical stance in the face of an industry at the height of its rapaciousness. That ethical case hasn’t gone away, but the business doesn’t seem half as world-crushing as once it did. So now DIY is a way to allow a more intimate and agile relationship with a probably fickle audience in the context of this shrinking industry.
This is also the supposed advantage of blogs over newspapers or magazines, so the new lo-fi musicians don’t just appeal to bloggers – they think like bloggers, with a similar “done is good” mentality and a lack of distance from the audience. What does that imply musically? A mix of instant appeal, fallibility, but also reassurance – those ideas that let you orient yourself quickly, like that Ronettes drumbeat.
Wavves has all of these, and listening to his new album is a happy way to pass a summer half-hour. But for pure sensation it can’t compare to the best indie hype of 2010, Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells, whose Treats gets a UK release in August. Initial praise for Sleigh Bells emphasised their blown-out noise side – but go to them looking for extremity and you’ll be disappointed. Like Wavves, it’s the prettier core that matters: in Sleigh Bells’ case the cheerleader chants, shoegazer daydreams and high school hallway chatter that they set against their divebomb guitars and redlined synths.
Sleigh Bells have been called lo-fi, but in one important respect they cut against that trend. Indie’s messy production usually complements a naturalistic working method – if it sounds raw, that’s just how the song came out. For all his newfound polish, Wavves sticks to this philosophy. But for Sleigh Bells the mess actually emphasises how mashed-together their music is: their record sounds like his sleeve looks. There’s fierceness in Treats, but not in the gleeful noise, more in how aggressively they have glued and fused its components. They have come up with a wilfully artificial aesthetic and are going all-out to make it work – for me there’s a thrill in hearing them try that trumps any number of recycled Ronettes beats.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010