Artist: The Steel Wheels
Album: Wild as We Came Here
Label: Big Ring
Release Date: 05.05.2017
The Steel Wheels are back with their first studio album in four years and it represents a significant leap in sound. Some of these textures are soothing, and most are just simply gorgeous. The four band members, all of whom grew up in Mennonite families, hail from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia but journeyed north to even more rural Maine to record with noted producer Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Lake Street Dive, Elephant Revival). Band leader Trent Wagler is the lead vocalist and plays banjo and guitar. The other three members provide solid harmony with Eric Brubaker on fiddle, Brian Dickel on bass, and Jay Lapp on mandolin and assorted guitars. Primarily an acoustic band, the musicians added electric instruments and vibraphone to their arsenal this time around and Kassirer added a variety of keyboards and recruited a drummer (both firsts for this band).
The Steel Wheels have a truly unique sound, perfecting the singular effect of one note plucked by the banjo or mandolin, the overall supporting effect of three-part harmony, and adding subtle textures of a bowed upright bass and tinkling keyboards to get the texture just right. At first, it may sound simple but it becomes intricate as the blend of instruments mix throughout this record seamlessly, in a very much relaxed way, so the listener can focus on the lyrics too. Nothing seems the least bit forced. Not easily pigeonholed, strains of bluegrass, folk music, Americana, and old-time traditional country are integral to the sound.
The poetry and thought-provoking nature of songs like the title track “Ghost of Myself,” “Take Me to the Ending,” and “Scrape Me Off the Ceiling” found me hitting repeat more than a few times. Themes touch on discovery, perseverance, as well as cleverly capturing and describing ordinary moments. This band grew up with traditions of folk music and likely some pretty strict rules about living their lives but now play with a controlled freedom. They’ve been on a journey that for a couple of them included playing in punk and alternative bands. The name connotes energy and the band feels it’s a nod to the steam-powered trains, industrial progress, and buggies of their Mennonite heritage. In any case, who can argue with forward progress? I liked their 2013 release, No Rain, but this one is intoxicating, raising the bar several notches.