Growth is difficult. Personal growth for sure, but finding new ways to grow creatively can also be a real mother.
Harrisonburg, Virginia’s The Steel Wheels have been recording for just about 15 years now. At the core of the band’s sound is its beautiful four-part vocal harmonies. The Wheels’ primary songwriter, guitarist/singer/banjoist Trent Wagler, backs these with straightforward guitar-bass-fiddle-banjo-mandolin arrangements. And for six albums, this style has worked nearly flawlessly and the Steel Wheels have presented a precise, professional vision of rural Americana.
Wagler and the band could have continued this sturdy, well-established approach on Over the Trees and the results would likely have yielded another quality, eminently listenable release. But on this LP, they don’t rest on terra firma. Instead The Steel Wheels expand their musical boundaries, incorporating new rhythmic textures that only accentuate the group’s strengths and give the material a fuller, more dynamic sound.
Opening track “Rains Come” takes a spooky melody that conjures up echoes of Tom Waits’ “Lowside of the Road” and adds a Mellotron and some Middle Eastern and African percussion. It serves to enhance Wagler’s lyrical content, which uses references to Noah’s Ark as a metaphor for the current climate crisis. Meanwhile, lead single “Keep On” is a propulsive folk-rocker, a catchy track that would sound at home in a small venue or at an arena concert. “Road Never Ends” is a sonic companion of sorts to “Rains Come,” utilizing African rhythmic textures to heighten the drama of the song’s lamentation of coping with the grind of touring and of a life, in general, geared toward a transient existence.
While the arrangements may be new on Over the Trees, The Steel Wheels’ trademark group harmonies remain outstanding and untampered with throughout the album. This all comes to a head on closing track “This Year.” In contrast to the new layers and experimentations on the preceding 10 songs, “This Year” is an unadorned a cappella number. It’s about wishing you well in the year ahead and appreciating life’s blessings, both big and small. The Steel Wheels sound fantastic in this format, and in going back to the basics on this song, they provide a gorgeous closer to its most complex work to-date.