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The Steel Wheels

Over the Trees – 2019 (Big Ring)

Reviewed by Jim Hynes

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CDs by The Steel Wheels

Ostensibly a bluegrass band, The Steel Wheels continue to explore some of the most inventive percussive sounds and surprising textures of any band loosely labeled in that genre. The quintet hail from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, but journeyed north to Maine to again record with noted producer Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Lake Street Dive, Elephant Revival). Kassirer also produced their 2017 "Wild As We Came Here."

Steel Wheels is band leader Trent Wagler (lead vocals, banjo, guitar), Eric Brubaker (fiddle), Brian Dickel (bass) , Jay Lapp (mandolin, guitars) and Kevin Garcia (percussion and keyboards). Primarily an acoustic band, the musicians added electric instruments and vibraphone to their previous effort. Kassirer adds keyboards, and Matt Douglas adds woodwinds.

The Steel Wheels have a truly unique sound, perfecting the singular effect of one note plucked by the banjo or mandolin, the glorious effect of three-part harmony, and the subtle textures of a bowed upright bass and tinkling keyboards. It often becomes intricate as the blend of instruments mix throughout relaxed and seamlessly, enabling the listener can focus on the lyrics too. Nothing seems the least bit forced.

They open with the percussion-infused "Rains Come," about Noah's ark and climate changers. "Get To Work" is a summoning of energy, to past procrastination and boredom. Its polar opposite, "Time To Rest," co-written by Wagler and Sarah Siskind, swings as it focuses on the lingering feeling one gets when disappointing people. I'll Be Ready," with its ethereal strings is simply gorgeous, showcasing the stellar harmonies.

Despite the optimistic songs like "Under" and the a capella closer, "This Year," the album is mostly about surviving tragedy, captured most vividly in "Waiting In the Dark," apparently about Brubaker's loss of his 10-year old daughter, Norah Brubaker, to a sudden illness this year. The album is dedicated to her.

In keeping with the energy and forward progress implied by their name, The Steel Wheels continue to push the envelope in highly creative ways.