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Wolf People - Fain

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Artist: Wolf People

Album: Fain

Label: Jagjaguwar

Review date: Apr. 29, 2013

Since the beginning, Wolf People has been dogged by Jethro Tull references, a comparison that was easier on the last album, Steeple, when the band still had a flute player. (Indeed “Tiny Circles,” the single from that record, sounds like Ian Anderson wandered into Yes’s “Roundabout” sessions.) It’s still not an invalid reference. There is certainly something about the wiry guitar licks, the modal, folky melodies that ties Wolf People not just to Tull, but to other Celt-drenched British rock bands – at the softer end Fairport Convention, at the louder one, Led Zeppelin.

Still, it’s interesting how these comparisons fall apart on closer inspection. Spend 10 minutes watching late 1970s Tull videos and you realize that Wolf People is a whole different endeavor, more complicated, less theatric, built on twining dual guitar lines, intricate, jazz-leaning rhythms and, yes, the half-stepped melodies of misty Britain.

Fain certainly reaches toward the past. Its name, for instance, is an archaic word for “willingly,” something you’re more likely to run across in Shakespeare than the pages of Mojo. The lyrics, too, shy away from contemporary references and characters, instead focusing on a Ren Faire set of images — kings, thieves, mythological creatures. The melodies also follow the twists and turns of old murder ballads and sea songs, shading soft mournful phrases with minor key harmonies. All this places Wolf People squarely in the category defined by Incredible String Band, Fairport, Pentangle and, latterly, Espers, a kind of super-charged, surreal folk, sliced through with acid guitar lines.

But listen more carefully, and the folk element recedes, turning into just one layer of the Wolf People aesthetic. Consider the single “All Returns”: Here, bandleader Jack Sharp plays a complicated sort of tag with Joe Hollick, their guitars intersecting, answering, commenting on one another, and only occasionally joining in big power chords. It’s more like Television than medieval metal, an abstract, geometric sort of synergy that disrupts any serenity the vocals might lay down. The rhythm section — that’s bass player Dan Davies and drummer Tom Watt — is equally interesting, locked in a super-tight, super-syncopated counterpoint, as precise, unruly and unpredictable as Tortoise. (The two of them are quite good on “All Returns,” but even more fascinating in the subsequent “When the Fire Is Dead in the Grate.”)

Fain is Wolf People’s second album as a band (Tidings collected singles and Jack Sharp’s bedroom recordings in 2010), and it benefits noticeably from time on the road. The stops and starts are razor-sharp, the parts fit with (and sometimes contradict) one another with puzzle-like precision. A video for “All Returns” shows the four members locked in effortful synchronicity, concentrating hard on the twists and bends in the music. They seem to be playing for themselves, mostly, with zero of the self-conscious mugging that you’ll see in any Jethro Tull performance. And that’s, perhaps, why Fain is as compelling as it is. Wolf People is working out the difficulties of splicing hard rock guitars and post-rock rhythms with diffident folk melodies as if for the first time, and their full-bore concentration makes it sound fresh and unexpected and interesting.

By Jennifer Kelly

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