[5 November 2009]
Australian hard rock outfit Wolfmother is the sort of band that attracts unlikely fans in unlikely numbers. Their popularity is a sturdy bit of makeshift scaffolding cobbled together from various subcultures and mainstream offshoots; all expert estimates point to it being structurally unsound, but somehow it holds up. Their hoary, bombastic self-titled debut album earned chin-stroking critical optimism from both the fickle taste-arbiters at Pitchfork and Rolling Stone‘s frantic trend-chasers. It united the fist-pumping testosterone of the rock-radio crowd with socially-tentative World of Warcraft nerds with an eye to the fantastic and the mystical and, astoundingly, it gave Lars Ulrich and Thom Yorke a band that they could both agree to be good. For a lot of music fans, Wolfmother was at least vaguely addictive. Much like their oft-cited predecessor Led Zeppelin, try as you might, you can’t quit them, baby.
Two people who could quit Wolfmother were bassist/keyboardist Chris Ross and drummer Myles Heskett. The original rhythm section tuned out last summer, citing those publicists’ favorites “irreconcilable personal and musical differences”. Frontman Andrew Stockdale, he of the bobbing white-fro and galactic wail, preserved the lupine name and rotated in some session men. Always the main event anyway, Stockdale likely felt little would be lost, and the reconstituted Wolfmother’s sophomore effort, Cosmic Egg, mostly proves him right.
Awash in distortion and shimmering cymbals, striding across a monolithic sonic landscape with resolute purpose, grounded in meaty riffs and Stockdale’s expertly hazy melodies, Cosmic Egg is less a step forward from Wolfmother’s debut than an extension of it. It’s not a new castle, but it’s a fairly impressive renovation of the existing foundations.
Like the massive floating egg towering over the wetlands on the album cover, the music inside is familiar but outsized, imposing but also faintly ridiculous and subtly cracked. The album-opener has rock-radio dominance firmly set in its mind; it might as well be titled “California Queen (of the Stone Age)”. Lead single “New Moon Rising” is a hard-driving heavy blues, mostly earning the Creedence Clearwater Revival reference of the title. “White Feather” is lithe and immensely likable, and that’s even before the cowbell pops up in the bridge. The band’s breakthrough single “Woman” gets an obvious and uninspiring reworking in “Pilgrim”. Rush-like tinges of traditional Asian styles open the relentlessly crunchy “Back Round”. The title track is screwball metal scrubbed clean.
But the songs that stick are the multiple guitar epics. Predictably spaced-out (in both senses of the word), their scope is so humongous as to demand such separation. “In the Morning” is the most Zeppelinesque moment in an album full of them, even if the stoner-rock glory of “Cosmonaut” sees Stockdale outdoing the earlier track’s falsetto reveries. The massive “In the Castle” climaxes with a martial guitar breakdown that evokes Spinal Tap; it’s masterful, even if it’s also inadvertently funny. “Caroline” and “Violence of the Sun” are probably the most progressive pieces featured here, both displaying keen soft-loud dynamics that hint at more dramatic depths than the mountainous rock that fills the open spaces elsewhere on the record.
The resultant record should reinforce Wolfmother’s eclectic big-tent fanbase while simultaneously shoring up their odd teleological balancing act. There’s hardly anything revelatory here, mind you, but turning to a Wolfmother album for revelation is like turning to a Mormon temple for a raunchy night out: it is, in a word, silly. Cosmic Egg stands outside of times and cultures and societies, a fortress in the clouds at the wispy fringes of credulity. It’s unlikely, but it’s inviting. That you aren’t surprised by the bends of its corridors doesn’t mean that they aren’t ultimately worth exploring.