In a year in which releases from Broken Social Scene and the Postal Service garnered much deserved attention and admiration, it isn’t difficult suspending suspicion over offerings labelled “side project”.
Ideally, as in the aforementioned examples, it is a beautiful thing when contributing members’ idiosyncratic musical experiences are teamed up for something wholly fresh. When this teamwork is successful, in other words, you want to believe these projects are full time bands on their own.
Wellwater Conspiracy, comprised of John McBain, founding guitarist of Monster Magnet, and fronted by former Soundgarden drummer and current Pearl Jam skins basher, Matt Cameron, grew from a chance encounter between the two in the early ‘90s into a home recording based writing partnership. These efforts led to 1997’s Declaration of Conformity, a debut that, set alongside the large rock bands that Wellwater Conspiracy’s members came from, stood out for its decidedly anti-mainstream feel. The record in fact predated the trendy garage rock revival by a couple of years and seemed to revel in its bursts of loud psychedelic rock. What happened to this is any one’s guess.
If the impetus of this collaboration is indeed experimentation, as the band’s press release insists on, then this new self-titled album could only be deemed a failure. The majority of the recording sounds forced and plays like second rate Sloan or something on the Rainbow Quartz label. And just as overly slick production has eroded the freshness of Sloan’s output over the last few years, Wellwater’s spontaneous retro act also loses much in the wake of the veneer it comes wrapped up in (the duo share producing credit with Adam Kasper).
It isn’t as if the boys aren’t trying, though. The songs included here aren’t particularly bad, but there simply isn’t anything all that exciting either. The trouble is, even when they are roused enough to threaten rocking (as in the first four restrained rock numbers), the tunes can’t help but sound like leftovers from the Pearl Jam vaults. Maybe it’s the fault of Matt Cameron’s drumming—its distinctive sound enough to be a highlight of the record, though also too easy a reminder of his day job.
This in itself might not be a bad thing, but combined with Cameron’s vocal performances the result is too much. On “Crow Revolt”, his reverb-swabbed voice sounds eerily reminiscent of Chris Cornell, easily called to mind no doubt by Cameron’s involvement in Soundgarden, though if this were a group of unknown musicians the activity would be deemed a rip-off.
It is not a coincidence, then, that the highlights of the album reside in its three instrumentals, as following up their experimentation parlance and dropping some of the bar room rock band stance allows more atmospheric, moody work to emerge. In those settings their attempted psychedelic touches also often work beautifully.
This is best heard in a trio of songs found towards the midway point. The grouping commences with “Rebirth”, a song in which Cameron’s drumming shines as the duo resurrect Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga” and inject it with all the dark ambient space the rest of the record lacks. This is followed by a nicely warm cover of Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air”, which, despite being a rather by-the-numbers rendition, manages to degenerate into an Eastern influenced brigade of noise that is both welcome and unexpected.
“Sullen Glacier” then follows that lead and successfully manages to morph as much noisy rock into an amorphous space jam. Here both members’ strengths excel, as McBain is allowed to unleash a series of winning riffs, while Cameron’s drum work remains in the forefront. While not falling into the category of post-rock, the sound touched on in this handful of songs warrants further exploration as an extension and progression of the music both men have been responsible for. It is only here, in fact, that they don’t sound rehashed and tired.
“Dresden Overture” also benefits from the more atmospheric approach, with Glenn Slater’s keyboard efforts leading the way. Again, a slight Middle Eastern flavour works and counters the darker underpinnings of the song, though this track might have benefited as an opener to this set of music, as opposed to its understated closer. At song’s end you’re only left wondering what you’ve just listened to. Brevity is often a good thing, but here, without much substance it feels as if you’ve just sat through tour mates fooling about during a sound check.
Having said that, though, all in all this isn’t terrible, but, considering the players, this team should be much better. As in Pearl Jam’s case, it isn’t difficult to want to root for them, larger than life mainstream positions aside. Despite this, it isn’t easy to cheer either.