Just when I think they can’t get any better, Trent Wagler and The Steel Wheels scrape me off the ceiling, to use their wording, with an astonishing outing. Songs that paste your pulse to your rib cage, throbbing, and heighten your heart’s passion by beats not likely. That’s a lot to say, I suppose. These songs don’t seem to have bounds or borders but live in breathtaking strides like a downstairs fall.
As I say, the new one may be the best yet. I haven’t yet mentioned that it represents a big departure for these guys. After what’s now more than a few years together, they decided to make a major move adding drums and keyboards. I think it’s an advance, allows versatility to an already supple and superior sound. The album, Wild as We Came Here, explores, as its title implies, the wild side of our lives, the daily fears and the rewards of finding ways of surviving them. That’s not a theme missing in earlier work, but it’s more of a central factor here.
I was fortunate to hear them perform the whole album at a showcase party at the Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City. I’d heard them do a couple of songs earlier in the year at a performance in Norfolk, VA, right after Sam Kassirer produced and recorded the record at The Great North Sound Society in Parsonsfield, Maine. In rural Maine, where Kassirer (Lake Street Dive, Josh Ritter) owns a recording studio inside a renovated farmhouse from the 18th century, the fellows came out after a highly concentrated week with a record setting a new direction for them.
The band members’ lives don’t appear that wild, growing up Mennonite and all attending Eastern Mennonite University in the Blue Ridge Mountains where they all grew up. Most of them have families now. They remain near each other in those same Appalachians, a land of beautiful mountain streams, ridges, cliffs, and meadows. I guess the wild still lurks in those hills, at the very least an understanding of it.
The Steel Wheels revolves around Wagler, who sings and plays guitar, banjo, and percussion. Relatively small and compact, he’s dynamic as the band’s centrifugal and central and very distinctive voice and lyricist. Each song radiates out from his center – lead vocals and grooving, energetic body- surrounded by his talented and versatile, harmonizing bandmates, Jay Lapp on vocals, mandolin, guitar, and steel guitar, Eric Brubaker on fiddle, and Brian Dickel on stand-up bass.
In this album, they build on their bluegrass traditions from a life in the mountains, while breaking out at the same time.
Here they’ve added producer Sam Kassirer on piano, organs, vibraphone, and marimba and Quinn on drums and percussion.
Their signature harmonies shine high and resonate deep throughout the album as one could only expect from this group that has risen to wide notice through factors among the strongest of which is their group harmony.
The first song sets the tone. Opens up the path to the wild, widens Trent’s vocals to his rugged range of emotion. “To the Wild” is exactly what it says, a salute or an homage to the things we don’t control, things in nature that not only defy control but extend a beauty at times that confounds the conditional.
In the long night, the only night /The first breath always finds the light/ As you wander out to meet me in this fog, /Will we have what we need to carry on?
Go down, go on down /while you are still a little child you can teach me now what I knew then/would you promise a simple vow, /we will find our way back to that place somehow
“Scrape Me Off the Ceiling” goes farther, takes the band down from wild places unreachable and contrary. Those wild places the band sings of are often the repository or wild-based home we either seek or need.
You’ve got me on my heels so long that I’m barely breathing
Tell me something hard to hear, scrape me off the ceiling
When I go I’ll be gone worry and be wasted
Clap your hands, here I stand, All in time we taste it
Some songs are as unique as the choice of the Wild as the basis for the group’s esthetic this go round. “Take Me to the Ending” tells it like it is if you’re ready for the times to tremble forward like a dove shaking its wings for a remarkable twist forward to the conclusion ensconced in the wayward stars. Even going underground if necessary to see the beginning.
Save yourself, but save your brother,/dust to dust it must be one or the other
if water was a poem, to an old-time song,/I would sing and sing and sing it all day long
Take me to the ending, i wanna see it, from the beginning
Look up, we’re not pretending, Are you receiving the message /I’m sending
And “Sing Me like a Folk Song” prefers to live the life of a tune than only to hear it. Sing me is a fond and sincere hope.
Sing me like a folk song now, high as the sky, deep as the ground,
Sing it out, round and round, sing me like a folk song now,
I’ll be hungry until I die, rivers flow, money lies,
Keep it simple, keep it slow, take your time wherever you go
I can’t talk but I can dance, word and flesh, a second chance,
Love me like a lullaby, live me up before I die
There’ll be days when I am gone, but I am with you everyone
Sing me like a folk song, last train home I’ll be on.
The song’s narrator is likened in his singularity and aloneness to the railroad tracks before him. It’s a lovely delving into a lonely, yet ultimately hopeful place.
The entire thing rings like a “Heartbeat.” As they sing,
When i’m gone and buried underneath the ground
won't you lay your head above me, you will feel the sound
of my heartbeat, it’s a memory heartbeat, it’s a melody
o o o in the wild o o o it’ll never die
o o o in the wild o o o it’ll never die
Once again, the Wheels have done it, only this time it’s a new place on the rotating ground, a place new and full, excitingly round.