The Wheel Workers, Unite

The Wheel Workers, Unite

With Unite, The Wheel Workers’ Steven Higginbotham definitely starts things off on the right foot. Opener “The Mop” (the title of which may stand for the concept “means of production” or a plain-old, real-live mop, or both, I’m not sure) combines a bouncy, jaunty, devil-may-care feel with almost News on the March-esque, old-timey-sounding arrangements and some awesome horns, then grafts it onto a wickedly sociopolitical commentary about workers and owners and workers and the unending crush of everyday work.

And it’s pretty freaking great — Higginbotham and his gang make it work, sounding like a quirky protest-ragtime band that’d be right at home marching on Wall Street, tubas and clarinets a-blazing, gathering people behind them as they danced their way in to tear down the financial giants.

Then the band takes a wild turn off the path with following track “Stereomad,” diving headlong into drifting, shimmery, yet still driving Britpop that makes me think of New Order more than anything else. And somehow, they make that work, too — even though the two tracks sound like they were crafted by two completely different bands, both manage to flow together, against all odds. It’s a pretty auspicious one-two punch with which to start an album.

Third track “Open Door,” unfortunately, starts to show some cracks in The Wheel Workers’ armor. I’ll freely admit that the track’s catchy as hell, and I catch myself singing the chorus line, “I never sold my core / I’ll never sell you out” while rambling around the house; I can’t help but respect the conviction in Higginbotham’s voice.

With a bit of a closer look, though, the lyrics come off like lines from a self-help book, talking about fighting back the self-loathing and needing to “disinfect” with sunlight. It’s not awful, no, but for me there’s fine line between interesting introspection and self-important navel-gazing, and some of Higginbotham’s lyrics step too far over that line for my tastes.

The band’s at its best, as well, when it keeps the momentum going, pushing forward in whatever sound they’re mining at the time. When they turn down or try to get lower-key, they risk drifting along aimlessly; “Soft,” for example, is a pretty enough song for what it is, but it meanders along for four minutes or so in a crystalline haze, and after about half that time, I feel myself tuning out.

“Hey Man” fares better, with almost a gentle Neutral Milk Hotel vibe to it (think “Two-Headed Boy”), remaining propulsive enough that you get pulled along for the ride even when it gets languid and woozy. The same goes for “I Don’t Know,” a track that makes me think of Neko Case’s “Deep Red Bells” (in a good way, don’t worry) and which rides a martial rhythm to good effect.

“Epicenter”‘s lyrics miss the mark somewhat, but the music’s good enough that I don’t care, especially when backing vocalist Allison Wilkins McPhail comes in to balance out Higginbotham’s nicely expressive-yet-somber voice. Closing track “The Seal and Whale” finds itself in similar territory, with some truly great, head-nod-inducing pop-rock music lurking beneath lyrics that are only okay.

While I really, truly want to proclaim my love for Unite without any misgivings at all, unfortunately, I can’t. While I do like it, and quite a bit at certain points, I don’t love it, at least not yet. There’s a hell of a lot promise here, though, and Higginbotham proves he definitely can hit the mark; next time, I’m hoping he’ll do it more often.

Feature photo by Patrick Bertolino.

[The Wheel Workers are playing their CD release 2/18/11 at Walter’s, along with The Orbans & Featherface.]
(self-released; The Wheel Workers --
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Friday, February 18th, 2011. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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2 Responses to “The Wheel Workers, Unite

  1. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 1: The Wheel Workers + The Orbans + Featherface + Clandestine + More on February 18th, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    […] But hey, no worries — that just means that everybody & their brother only has a couple of choices to make this evening. And the one I’d push for, personally, is over there on the right. Tonight at Walter’s local pop-rockers The Wheel Workers are having their CD release for new album Unite, which we literally just got up on the site over here. […]

  2. SPACE CITY ROCK » Tonight: Miniature Tigers, The Wheel Workers, & Alkari @ Fitz on May 2nd, 2012 at 12:25 am

    […] folky/dancey pop with a political bent, and I enjoyed a lot of the tracks on their debut album Unite not too long […]

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