The Steel Wheels just dropped the best album of their career. Trent Wagler, Eric Brubaker, Brian Dickel and Jay Lapp have a lot of reasons to be proud. Their new release, Wild as We Came Here, has the boys from the Blue Ridge out on the road, giving some of the most stirring performances of their career. The Wheels deliver ten singularly brilliant songs that form a cohesive document of life in western Virginia. Subjects as diverse as environmental activism and religious oppression are all firmly rooted in a mural of rural life. At their core these stories are connected to the natural, tangible world, and as such, their struggles take on an epic, spiritual dimension, one that we immediately identify with.
That epic spiritual dilemma is rooted in the distance that stretches between what we hope for and what we settle for in this life. The vehicle that moves us along that terrain, and grounds us in the physical world, is the clean sound of acoustic strings set against a backdrop of gorgeous vocal harmonies. This is music made by people, not machines; hands of flesh and bone coaxing magic from instruments made of wood.
And yet, the Steel Wheels wisely avoid the trap of time. This is not a new old-timey record waxing poetic about the good old days. The album is clearly centered in the present, which saves it from being both preachy and sentimental. The lead-off tune, “To the Wild,” woos the listener away from a life of gridlock and into a more considered way of living.
I saw lights, bright city lights,
They drew me out on the horizon,
Before I knew there was one I was tied up to its post
Every day, every direction
Running errands in circles of confusion
The band made some conscious changes for this record that show their growth as artists. First, they brought in Sam Kassirer to produce. Kassirer, known for his work with Josh Ritter and Lake Street Dive brought a fresh perspective and focus. The band packed up and went to Maine last fall, where they recorded the album in a week and a half, in Kassirer’s renovated farm house studio.
For Wild as We Came Here the band augmented their sound with the addition of drums and keyboards. This subtle change expanded their sonic palette, adding a singer-songwriter element to their string band sound. It was not a major shift for the Wheels, as they remain firmly rooted in their Blue Ridge heritage, but it contributes emotional textures that flesh out the deeper concerns in Trent Wagler’s lyrics. Eric Brubaker’s fiddle playing is a piece of inspired alchemy, as he almost single-handedly keeps the listener entrenched in the band’s rural landscape even as the songs tackle weighty matters.
“Recording with Sam was a wonderful experience,” Brian Dickel said after their euphoric show in Charlottesville, Virginia. The bass player added, “We went in with about forty songs to choose from, and we were able to pare that down pretty quickly.”
Trent Wagler, lead singer and chief songwriter for the Wheels agreed. “We had toured with Josh Ritter and gotten to know Sam through that experience. You have to have a lot of trust to turn the keys over to somebody else. He was very laid back, but driven, with a great eye for detail. He was always very focused.”
That trust, and Kassirer’s input, helped the band quickly arrive at the ten tracks that made the final cut. “We probably could go in the studio right now and make another record,” Wagler said, referring to the unreleased material. One of those songs, a stunning instrumental entitled “The Architect’s Daughter,” was in the set list at The Jefferson Theater and features a brilliant display of mandolin playing by Jay Lapp. The audience in Charlottesville ate it up.
The ensemble playing of the Steel Wheels has never sounded better. There is an undercurrent of joy in the new recording, even though the subject matter isn’t always happy. The title track, a piece about preserving the environment for the next generation, is at its core a lament for one of the battles lost.
“It is based on a book I read,” Wagler said. “I don’t introduce the song with that story, because the piece is written in a way to be open to interpretation.” As it stands, the song could be about anything, from losing the family farm to concerns about pipelines and unrestrained, predatory commerce.
“Broken Mandolin” contrasts the decay of urban structures with the resilience of the natural world. “This used to be a shop where you could turn in your tin cans,” Wagler sings. “Now flowers grow up in the sidewalk, like they can see and hear, and talk the talk and walk the walk.”
When asked what the band’s Mennonite upbringing contributes to their muse, Wagler responds, “A sense of community. And harmony singing.” Both of those elements are in abundance with this band and on this album as the band balances its secular music with its gospel influences. Wagler’s singing is particularly engaging, a soothing voice laced with just enough grit to lend an edge to his lyrical observations.
“Scrape Me Off the Ceiling,” the first single, is a buoyant, upbeat number built around Wagler’s simple banjo; Jay Lapp, Brian Dickel, and Eric Brubaker joining in to create anticipation for what is to follow. Around the two-minute mark, Dickel’s haunting back up cry is a signal call to the mountain life they love, and serves as a reminder that this band knows where it comes from, and where its heart remains.
The closing track, “Till No One is Free,” is as gorgeous a piece of singing as the band has ever put to tape. The choir-like vocals elevate the struggle of faith and doubt, even as the central character is on the losing end. It is one of those songs that draws you in and won’t let you go.
As always, the engine that drives the Steel Wheels is their attention to detail, especially in the songwriting department. There isn’t a fluff piece anywhere on the album, just ten solid tracks of beautifully imagined singing and playing. Take the trip into the wild with these guys, but beware, you may never want to come back. www.theflamestillburns.com