"I Can't Dream," the closer on Wavves' fourth studio album, opens in a drunken lo-fi stupor — Nathan Williams warbling bratty, tone-deaf nonsense over hissy acoustic power chords. Then, a couple minutes in, the sonic floodgates open. Hovering strings, twinkling xylophones, e-bow atmospherics: it's like Brian Wilson crashing Beck's birthday party circa Mellow Gold. And it's also an easy summary of Williams's evolution as a songwriter — his progression from bedroom-blog surf-punk troublemaker to indie-rock poster-boy, with all its Big Boi collaborations and Mountain Dew commercials. Williams mostly ditched his lo-fi stylings for 2010's King of the Beach, his breakout album with producer Dennis Herring. But Afraid of Heights is exponentially more polished and pop-oriented, chasing the candy-coated sheen of classic early-'90s punk-pop and alt-rock: Dookie, The Blue Album, even that one with the naked baby cover. Instead of just cleaning up his sound, Williams has cleaned up his songwriting, and the results can be splendid: the Green Day–aping blast of "Gimme a Knife," the riveting, distorted spunk of "Demon To Lean On." Elsewhere, Wavves use their professional recording digs to explore their quirkier sides — like the out-of-nowhere orchestral coda to "Everything Is My Fault" or the entirety of "Cop," two minutes of acoustic guitars, overdriven bass, whistling, and delirious, pogo-ing hooks. Thanks to producer John Hill (M.I.A., Santigold, Rihanna), the guitars are arena-huge, the drums punch with more clarity; Williams is even singing in tune most of the time. But that polish often neuters the frontman's West Coast stoner attitude (check the awkward F-bomb assault of "Lunge Forward"). "First we gotta get high/And then sail to the sun!," Williams yelps on the generic "Sail to the Sun," like a man in hot pursuit of a Mountain Dew sequel. Hooks abound, but overall, Afraid of Heights feels like a big-budget step sideways.
WAVVES + FIDLAR + CHEATAHS :: Brighton Music Hall, 158 Brighton Ave, Allston :: April 8 :: 7pm :: All Ages :: $17 :: 617.779.0140 or brightonmusichall.com
: CD Reviews
, Music, Wavves, Nathan Williams