The Past and Its Combinations
One of the oddest and most unexpected pleasures of Pearl Jam’s latest LP Binaural was “Evacuation”, penned by new drummer Matt Cameron. A driving proto-punk track, “Evacuation”‘s bizarre chord changes and shifting rhythms injected a sense of daring and experimentation into a band that after 1998’s disappointing Yield looked tired and tepid.
It seems Cameron’s talents extend further than that one song. On his side project Wellwater Conspiracy’s third record, The Scroll and Its Combinations, the former Soundgarden drummer has created a dizzying tapestry of unusual styles and textures. Joined by founding Monster Magnet member John McBain, Cameron integrates a vast array of influences and sounds, ranging from ‘60s psychedelic pop and garage rock weirdness to punk and alternative anger and drive.
Just like Pearl Jam’s “Evacuation”, Wellwater Conspiracy’s best tracks shift quickly from silence to noise, melody to dissonance, order to chaos. The album kicks off with “Tidepool Telegraph”—bizarre, warped, yawning clean guitar chords slowly mutate into a driving, sexy, mystical rock track. The Scroll and Its Combinations jumps from silly, funky tracks like “Tick Tock 3 O’clock” and “I Got Nightmares” (a cover of obscure ‘60s Dutch band Q65) to mysterious and ever-shifting instrumentals like “Brotherhood of Electric” and “Happy’s Lament”. While many jump to say that Wellwater sounds nothing like Pearl Jam or Soundgarden, many tracks on this disc, such as “C, Myself and Eye” with its halting rhythms and dark, howling vocals, easily could’ve been B-sides from Superunknown. On songs like these Wellwater Conspiracy sound like mere imitators, recreating the sounds of their old bands only half as good. For the majority of the album, however, Cameron and McBain craft a sound and sensibility borne more out of Pete Townshend than Chris Cornell.
The sound of these songs is taken straight from the mid-‘60s trippy fuzz guitar, silly surf bass riffs, and hastily orchestrated harmony vocal parts. The album has the feel of a tour through a bin of great old forgotten 45s you find in your attic. There are echoes of the early Who, mid-era Beatles, early Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, as well as a host of other obscure ‘60s rock influences from the Nuggets collection. The greatest strength of this record is its sense of fun and excitement. While we all love brooding tortured geniuses like Radiohead meticulously crafting every sound they make for years and years, sometimes you just want to hear a bunch of people rock out to music they love. As a side project from Cameron and McBain’s regular gigs, Wellwater Conspiracy gives them a forum in which to be silly, recklessly inventive, and wonderfully spontaneous in the studio.
Appropriately enough, their studio apparently had a revolving door, as there is a long list of guest appearances, ranging from Kim Thayil and Ben Sheperd of Soundgarden, to local Seattle band Cat from Dog Mountain, to Pearl Jam’s frontman Eddie Vedder (under the alias “Wes C. Addle”). Vedder sings on one of the LP’s standout tracks, “Felicity’s Surprise”, a jangly track combining the bright guitar style of the Byrds with the Eastern-tinged rock of such Pearl Jam tracks as 1996’s “Who You Are”. Just as Cameron and McBain regularly share instrumental and writing duties, so do they divide the duties of musicianship and singing among their friends. The result is an album that sounds like the results of an all night jam session-a mish mosh of styles and players, constantly shifting singers and writers from track to track.
All that is wonderful and redeemable about The Scroll and Its Combinations comes out in full Technicolor on its first single, an obscure 1969 Steve Morgan cover, “Of Dreams”. A pulsating, raucous, climatic rock track reminiscint of the Who’s “I Can See for Miles”, “Of Dreams”, like this record at its best, is wonderfully anachronistic. The production is purposefully grainy and lo-fi, the drums sounding like flipped over trash cans, the guitars one wall of grating fuzz, the vocals loud, up front, blaring with a sneering, Roger Daltrey English drawl. Original? No, but that isn’t the point of this album. Standing as a wonderfully enjoyable homage to both their musical influences and the pure joy of creating music in the first place, The Scroll and Its Combinations is a wild, winding, exhilarating ride.