Graded on a Curve:
Wolf People,
Steeple

Somebody really ought to tell Wolf People that living in the past is like basting your dick in marinade—totally pointless. There’s not much to be done with a well-basted penis, but neither is there much to be achieved by slavishly imitating, mimicking, copying, studiously and reverently reproducing, or aping—pick the words you like best—the music of your parents or grandparents. There’s a word for that, and the word is jazz. Yet this is what Wolf People, a very talented bunch of Brits, are doing with such late-sixties’ mainstays as Cream, Jethro Tull, and Fairport Convention.

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Well sure, if by imitation you’re talking about incorporating elements of a beloved band or era into a contemporary framework, as The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Wooden Shjips, and The People’s Temple do at their best. (At their worst, they’re no better than Wolf People.) But flattery becomes sycophancy—and true originality goes out the window—when a band anachronistically attempts to recapture, down to the dot above the “i” in Jethro Tull, the sounds of a by-gone era. It’s like the difference between painting clever imitations of Diego Velázquez, as any hack could do, and using his paintings as a jumping-off point for something completely new, a la Francis Bacon.

So why am I even bothering with Wolf People? Well, in part to illustrate the dangers of blind adoration degenerating into blatant mimicry. But also in part because, despite Wolf People’s at times risible fetishization and apery of late sixties English psychedelic blues and folk rock, I actually sort of like them. They amuse me. It can be fun listening to guys in 2014 try to time-warp themselves back to 1969. Plus they really kick out the jams on guitar. I mean, these guys can set the frets on fire. That may not sound like a whole lot to bring to the table, but I’ll take Wolf People over Vampire Weekend, who simply annoy me, or Foo Fighters, who are so generic they should come in a white can bearing nothing but the words Alternative Rock, any day.

Obviously Wolf People are doing something right, because they’re the only English band on the prestigious Jagjaguwar label. As for 2010’s Steeple, it’s the second of Wolf People’s three full-lengths. Formed in 2005 by guitarist/vocalist Jack Sharp (cool name; he sounds like a Victorian era villain) in the quaint English hellhole of Bedford, where werewolves are said to still haunt the countryside at night, the band also includes drummer Tom Watt, guitarist Joe Hollick, and bassist Dan Davies. On a tragic note, original drummer Charles “Chaz” Cheesewick disappeared during a late-night trip to the chips shop back in 2008, and it is said by those who claim to have caught glimpses of him in nearby Flitwick and Biggleswade that he is hairy, has 42 teeth, and howls.

You’ll swear you’ve heard the songs on Steeple before, probably because you have heard the songs on Steeple before, on albums owned by your parents. This LP is full of deja vu moments, and on psychedelic opener “Silbury Sands” it’s Sharp’s voice that will remind you of days of future past, in so far as it’s an eerie echo of that of Steve Winwood. The backing vocals are very twee and straight from the olden days too. But if you’re smart you’ll resist the urge to turn “Silbury Sands” off, because Sharp plays some far-freaking feedback at mid-song, and then commences to play one very twisted solo, both of which will make you glad you stuck around. It’s not the ghost of Steve Winwood who haunts “Tiny Circle” but Ian Anderson. Because “Tiny Circle” comes complete with a recurring flute riff—and  solo—straight from the Jethro Tull school of flamingo flautists. Meanwhile the backing vocals sound like bad CS&N, the melody is reminiscent of Cream, and the winsome little folk coda at the end is, I don’t know, let’s say taken straight from Fotheringay. (Just guessing; I’ve never actually listened to Fotheringay, and neither has anybody else.) This isn’t a song; it’s a Frankenstein’s monster built from parts dating back to ’68. And I would write this baby off as the LP’s worst offender if it weren’t for—that’s right—the cool guitar duel between Sharp and Hollick, which alas doesn’t last nearly long enough.

“Painted Cross” features a propulsive beat, and the melody is nice too. The vocals are middling twee, but once again I can summon up the reasons to check out this tune in one word: guitars, guitars, and more guitars. The guitar solo is the high point of the song, with the big hammer riffs that nail this one down and keep it from floating off into the fairie land of sixties nostalgia running a close second. As for “Morning Born,” Sharp’s vocals are a bit (actually, make that a lot) too retro and twee for their own good, but the same doesn’t go for the big feedback-drenched guitar that roars throughout the song and plays two, count ‘em two, monstrous solos backed by some serious drum pummel. The frenzied countdown to the ending is particularly cool, as is the way it segues into LP highlight “Cromlech,” a guitar feedback fest with crashing drums that you expect to stop but just keeps going, guitar and drums growing louder and more twisted by the minute. This is what I like about Wolf People and where in fact I may be wrong about Wolf People—“Cromlech” is pure divine madness, and no matter how overly reverential Wolf People may be towards the past, the past has nothing that can match this noise fest.

“One by One From Dorney Reach” opens with more unholy feedback and tons of cymbals and drum rolls, then segues into one fast-paced, melodic, and power-chord-mad rock’n’roller. Unfortunately Sharp’s too-precious vocals once again put a damper on the proceedings, and not just in the twee interlude in the song’s middle. I’d be willing to let bygones be bygones if he stopped there, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t do it again. And again. And it’s not until the song’s close that those great guitars let rip, albeit not long enough to make me happy. As for “Castle Keep,” it’s title bodes no good, and Sharp’s opening vocals lead one to expect the worst. Fortunately things get a bit better after that, and “Castle Keep” turns out to be a  middling, stop-and-start affair with a proportion of vocals to guitars that doesn’t exactly make my day. Still, the guitar solo at around the 4:00 mark is righteous, especially when it takes a turn towards the psychedelic blues, and Tom Watt’s Rock Action on drums is happening, maaaan.

“Banks of Sweet Dundee Pt. 1” starts off like a bad Fairport Convention song, or worse a decent Gentle Giant song, or God help us all a rather good Pentangle song, what with its Renaissance guitar figures, Sharp’s annoying “folk rock ‘69” vocals, and its anachronistic tale about a farmer’s daughter, a ploughboy, and a round-faced squire, which might be worth actually paying attention to if it ended in a hot 3-way. Instead the lyrics lead you only to “Banks of Sweet Dundee Pt. 2,” which is more of the same—same boring story line, same cloying chorus of backing vocalists, and same overly sweetened lead vocals—which begs the question, why two songs instead of one? At about the halfway mark “Pt. 2”—and Sharp’s vocals—suddenly go Cream on you, which is not a good thing until the guitar kicks in. Alas, it is but a brief hiatus, for the tale Sharp has to tell is seemingly endless, like Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene.” Except God in His Infinite Mercy saw fit to kill Spenser when he was only 6 books through his planned 12-book poem, sparing English majors such as myself a horrible fate.

Of course “Banks of Sweet Dundee Pt. 2” does end, but leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth, the Dundee (despite that “sweet”) not being the cleanest river around. Actually the bitter taste is due to the two-parter being the platter’s low point, and one piss poor way to end an LP. Yet despite this, I wonder if I haven’t been too hard on poor Wolf People. I still maintain that until they make the leap from slavish imitation to a sound that incorporates both elements of the old and new they will remain a sort of novelty act, and folks like yours truly will hang on just to hear the far-fucking out guitar solos. But what with the guitars they’re already halfway there, and all they really have to do is de-twee the vocals some, redial the lyrical focus from past to present, and lose some of the more blatant rip-offs, such as the Ian Anderson flute.

Wolf People are far too good to waste themselves writing songs that might as well have come straight out of a time capsule. If I want to listen to Cream I’ll listen to Cream. Fortunately I never want to listen to Cream. And I don’t want to listen to Wolf People pretend to be Cream either. One Eric Clapton is enough for six lifetimes. I need two like I need my dick basted in marinade.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • Martijn

    There’s something going on with ‘wolf’ in rock. You wrote about Wolf People, a band of whom I never heard about before. And there is of course the Australian Wolfmother, a band that sounds like the love child of AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. (A band I completely adore mind you, Wolfmother! Son of a kangaroo do they rock!).
    However, to finish the holy trinity of retro rockers, I can tell you about a band we have here in the Netherlands called DeWolff. They added another f at the end and left out the space between the words The (in Dutch: de) and Wolf. So let’s just say they’re called The Wolff. (Even though they are called DeWolff.) They too sound just like 1968, say a cross between Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. Rockin’ and screaming and they use a hammond organ quite a lot. And I like them… but!
    Somehow you’re completely right of course… if I want to listen to Led Zeppelin, I should throw on one of their records… and aping old music is never a creative way forward. And even though I like (love!) band who play the acoustic drums, use an organ and a screaming Gibson SG… it was very good of you to point this thing out for everybody.
    In art or comedy or design, the retro shtick bothers me a lot more than in music. When I see someone do a Warhol like stunt… or presents a trick long done by Duchamp and smiles as if he just farted Chanel… or still rides the wave that elder comedians mastered, I have to spew; but with retro 60’s music music I think to myself: ‘here’s one who knew how to get their hands on the good stash!’ Retro 80’s music is a whole other matter of course. That wás ridiculous crap back then and is simply pathetic today.
    Now, let’s listen to The Wolf People.

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text