Wolf People Steeple

[Jagjaguwar; 2010]

Styles: early psychedelic, Brit-rock, heavy
Others: Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Wolfmother

With an ominous bell and a low guitar bellow, “Silbury Sands” leads off Wolf People’s first proper LP, Steeple. The song centers around the same melody as “Season Pt. 1,” the first track from the UK quartet’s singles compilation Tidings, released this past February, and it’s changed since we last heard it. For one thing, frontman Jack Sharp’s mellow tenor has been applied to the onetime song sketch, however sparsely. For another, what was a one-minute, fourteen-second idea fleshed out by backwards guitar and bolstered by a thudding bass melody has been stretched, sinewy and psychedelic-heavy, into a five-minute semi-jam.

“Silbury Sands” serves as an apt microcosm of the difference between the Wolf People we knew on Tidings, one that frequently switched songs once a minute, and the one we meet here with Steeple. Through its rough, low guitar and blissfully harmonizing vocals, it’s got a swagger, a confidence. “Silbury Sands” has been cleaned up, production-wise, since it was “Season Pt. 1” — Tidings was a four-track compilation, after all — but though it’s lost its bizarre flute and gnarled guitar coda, the driftwood twist of the melody is just as compelling.

Moreover, the record’s song titles and lyrical subject matter are littered with geographical locations, places that ostensibly make up the scenery in Sharp’s mind. Weaving nostalgic memory with alternately celebratory, suspenseful, or lamenting sonorities, he ushers us into a landscape he’s already created — perhaps remembered — and can now display for all to see. Not unlike Tidings, which revisited previously introduced themes on later tracks, Steeple has a completeness to it, a reassuring wholeness even when things get loud or wild or weird.

“Morning Born,” for example, is a lilting ballad that takes cues from Irish airs, its melody meandering in little loops until the distorted guitar enters once again. “I am morning-born, yet mourning I am none,” Sharp sings with impressive vocal intimacy. Whether autobiographical or not, the story he tells is a personal one, painting a brighter, more accurate picture of himself than many an arms-length album can.

Switchback melodies litter the record, twisting and un-straightforward. “Painted Cross,” with its “There will be trouble” refrain, communicates through its nonverbals — walking bass, minor chords — the same warning espoused in its words. What’s more, it again revisits a theme introduced on Tidings: the aforementioned flute ending to “Season Pt. 1.” It’s as if that record provided the outline they used to make this one; in fact, it surely did.

Completely devoid of the ADHD that made Tidings so charming, Steeple instead errs on the side of monotony, the whole thing sticking firmly to its take on authentic psychedelia. Without declaring the record totally unvarying, though, I’d instead assert that it feels more complete but less passionately (naïvely?) hopeful than Tidings did. Like a bright-eyed recent graduate, Tidings went in every direction at once, envisioning endless possibilities. Wolf People, as the freshly diploma’d will do, picked a direction and went with it. They selected an eventuality from the infinite potentials they hinted at on Tidings and worked on it, honed it into a whole, fully-realized work of art. Steeple is competent and very obviously displays hard-earned skill, but it’s a little sad to think about all the directions they didn’t go, all the roads they didn’t take.

But that’s not the whole story. At first listen, Tidings seemed more varied and adventurous than Steeple does. It had moments that hinted at pentatonic scales, exotic tastes of other worlds only compounded by the record’s almost utter lack of focus. I fear, though, that this may be another example of the all-too-common “I like their older work because it was messier” mode that often rears its ugly head in the realms of music fandom, and it’s a pitfall because, in this case, that reaction in me was ultimately inaccurate. Steeple is the final art piece derived from years of precocious sketching, from notebooks full of drawings and ideas, both ones that bloomed into something more and ones that didn’t. It’s fruitless to lament the ones not given greater life; the ideas that make up Steeple have their own lives now.

Links: Wolf People - Jagjaguwar

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