Wolfy nails debut album 

If you're in the market for a testosterone-fueled guitar death match, then Wolfy's debut album is not for you.

Still, you'd probably admit that this collection of lushly arranged piano rock deserves to be all over the radio. The ambitious and painstakingly crafted Saint-Emilion has commercial potential far beyond the typical self-financed local release.

It's the realization of a vision for songwriters Greg "Wolfy" Johnson and Josh Hedges, friends since their days at Taylor University, and drummer Matthew Wilson, who joined the band in 2006, when the album was already in progress.

"It wasn't supposed to take two years," says Johnson, the lead vocalist, keyboardist, synth programmer and string arranger, who picked up his nickname in a German class.

"It's not like you go to the label and say, 'We need more money to finish the album,'" says bass guitarist Hedges, who serves as an anchor and editor for Johnson's ideas. "That was the goal: on a small budget, to make a national-caliber recording."

The album was produced, engineered, mixed and mastered by Steven Creech at his Eastside studio, SoundInvestment Recordings. In addition to the core trio, the disc also features contributions by drummer Carl Corder, vocalist Sarah Jones and nine string musicians.

For live shows, the band enlists a string quartet when possible, usually drawing from local high school orchestras. Such was the case in November, when Wolfy staged an elaborate and surreal all-ages release concert in the sanctuary of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Johnson is a part-time accompanist and music coordinator for the progressive downtown congregation, which shares its space with the Harrison Center for the Arts.

Packing 10 songs into 34 minutes, Saint-Emilion establishes a clear signature for the band, reaching for the epic sweep of classical music within the confines of a pop tune. Soft piano interludes give way to soaring crescendos that threaten to collapse under their own dramatic weight.

"The dream is to have an orchestra and a choir," says Johnson, a classically trained player and teacher.

Though the sound is layered and polished to a sheen, the U2-ish rhythm section packs a visceral punch. Comparisons to Coldplay are common, but Wolfy's hook-laden tunes are even more thoroughly rooted in their melodies and harmonies, with the rich orchestration adding color and emotional wallop.

"We're not a guitar band, so we can't just kick on the distortion to flesh things out," Hedges says.

Johnson's wistful tenor vocals will not appeal to funk and metal fans, but they certainly fit the Wolfy vibe, which can be precious at times. The lyrics, most written from a second-person perspective, are fragmentary and tend to evoke moods rather than tell obvious stories.

Here's a snippet from the title cut: "The stones, the vines / Sing to me goodnight / In autumn leaves and colored trees / And I won't be home tonight."

Saint-Emilion is a community in France's southwestern Bordeaux region with a winemaking tradition that dates back two millennia. Wolfy's mention of the name, like other geographical references on the album, is not empty pretense but a genuine nod to experiences Johnson and Hedges have shared while traveling. They passed through Saint-Emilion a couple years ago on a European trek during which, amid the spooky beauty of Romanesque architecture, their concept of orchestral pop-rock crystallized.

"It really kind of lit the fire," Hedges says of the trip. "Before that, we were more like the Ben Folds Five."

Continuing on their gradual and deliberate course, the band members are finalizing arrangements for online sales, marketing efforts and live shows to promote the album. The disc is currently for sale on CD Baby and soon will be available through iTunes. Wolfy plans to visit Texas in March to perform at the South by Southwest music conference, tour the East Coast in April and play festivals over the summer.

"The goal now is to get the record to everybody," Hedges says. "We do think it's different from what other people are doing right now, nationally."

So don't expect them to add a wailing lead guitarist anytime soon.

"My hero is Jerry Lee Lewis," Johnson says, "and he could rock without a guitar player."

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