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Wolfmother – New Crown

on March 28, 2014, 12:00am

It doesn’t take a marketing guru to understand why Andrew Stockdale revived the Wolfmother moniker and slapped it on the cover of his new album, New Crown. The passing music fan probably won’t recognize Stockdale’s name, but Wolfmother will always be remembered for their brief occupancy of the rock ‘n’ roll throne during the classic rock revival of the mid-aughts. Their debut album yielded six singles, and songs such as “White Unicorn” and “Woman” were inescapable during the summer of ’06, with the latter eventually taking home a Grammy. All those junior high kids wearing Zeppelin shirts they bought at JCPenney finally had a modern band to embrace.

But with overnight success came a tepid decline. The second Wolfmother album, 2009’s Cosmic Egg, was decent and sold well, but Stockdale couldn’t hold down a steady lineup. The band’s rhythm section became a revolving door of bassists and drummers. Discouraged by the instability, Stockdale put the band on indefinite hiatus before unofficially ending it last year. Citing creative rebranding, he took the songs intended for the third Wolfmother album and released them as his solo debut, Keep Moving. “The listener listens for emotion, not a brand name,” Stockdale said of the decision. “So you may as well call it what it is and be true to the music.”

Ten weeks later — after it was established that Keep Moving was a critical and commercial flop — Stockdale announced that Wolfmother was back, and he was canceling all his solo shows, and booking a Wolfmother tour. Only nothing had changed: The lineup was the same as the one on Keep Moving and the same as the one intended for the solo tour. In contradiction to Stockdale’s aforementioned comments, it was a matter of branding — a Wolfmother tour will make far more money than one under his own name.

Which brings us to New Crown, the third Wolfmother album or the second Stockdale solo effort, depending on how you look at it. Self-funded, self-recorded, self-promoted (via Stockdale’s Instagram), and self-released on Bandcamp last week, the record is an exercise in the DIY possibilities open to musicians in the cloud era. But it’s also a testament to how far Wolfmother has fallen, from the ranks of rock royalty to label-less and desperate, clinging to past success in order to survive in the present.

Unlike Keep Moving, which too often veered into singer-songwriter land, New Crown does manage to sound like a Wolfmother album and at least partially justify being called such. Stockdale’s Robert Plant-ish wail remains intact, and he’s back to writing big rock songs with fat riffs. Anachronistic or not, that’s the arena where he thrives, and as a result, New Crown houses some of the his best material in years. Writing songs is only the first part of making a successful record, though. There’s also that whole business of recording and making the songs sound good. And that’s where Stockdale really screws up.

From the sound of it, New Crown was hastily recorded in GarageBand, exported as a .WAV, and uploaded straight to Bandcamp. We’re not talking bad production, but non-existent, even anti-production. The vocals are inconsistent, the guitars limp, the drums muffled. Bass comes and goes depending on the volume of the other instruments. Tracks are recorded at different volumes and mastered differently. Like a demo, you can hear promise in the arrangements, but the music itself is too poorly presented to be listenable. Take “Heavy Weight”, one of the crunchiest, doomiest Wolfmother tracks since the first album. No doubt this song kills live, but here the mix is muddy and brick-walled; none of the instruments stand out because they’re all turned up too loud. It’s physically agitating to listen to, because you know there’s a good song to be heard, yet turning up the volume actually makes it sound shittier. Self-funded release or not, you’re fucking Wolfmother. You have a Grammy. You have some QA to live up to. Stockdale’s been in the industry way too long to ignore audio engineering. No excuse.

In the rare instances where the production isn’t grating, Wolfmother actually play to their weaknesses by momentarily becoming sloppy and punkish on “Feelings” and the bluesy “I Ain’t Got No”. The spontaneous, rough performances (possibly recorded in single live takes) lend themselves to the cruddy sound because they don’t need any production. They’re also a welcome reprieve from the constant onslaught of classic rock clichés Stockdale dishes out on New Crown (and in general). He plays it too safe too often, and songs that lack strong melodies grow repetitive before they reach the third refrain. Opener “How Many Times” follows a stale riff-verse-riff-verse pattern, while “New Crown” and “She Got It” trace a similar, generic template. Again, this is where a producer would come in, to add flavor and syncopations and quirks to keep the listener interested. Stockdale pulls this off on “Tall Ships”, an eerie, Paul Chain-style track complete with an organ solo, but twists and turns are all too rare on New Crown.

Because this is a Wolfmother album, not a solo outing, there are inherent expectations that must be met, standards to maintain. That’s where Stockdale fails. One can only wonder what this record would have sounded like with studio guidance, as most of the tracks have potential or at least a solid groove. As it stands, New Crown is unfinished and wouldn’t have made it this far in the release cycle at a proper label.

Essential Track: “I Ain’t Got No”