The Wheel Workers, Past to Present

The Wheel Workers, <em>Past to Present</em>

With Past to Present, The Wheel Workers attempt a truly delicate balancing act, one that’s impressive to witness. See, the album takes a big, big risk, in that it’s essentially two things at the same time: a pitch-perfect orchestral pop-rock album and a strident, intensely political call to arms. There are bands that can do those things, to be sure, but very few can do both at the same time and succeed.

And yet, against the odds, The Wheel Workers pull it off. They’ve managed to craft a dozen tracks that are thoughtful, warm, friendly, melodic, and addictive as all hell (it’s seriously impossible to not sing along to “Chemicals,” for one)…and are married to singer/guitarist Steven Higginbotham’s often-cautionary, sometimes-grim, activism-minded lyrics.

Hell, if you were to only read the lyrics without listening to the music, you could be excused for thinking the band was some brooding, Apocalypse-minded gang of heavily-bearded metal dudes. I mean, seriously: “Releasing hold / of the victim’s mind / taking back control / from hope or chance”? Or this one: “So we burn it all away / or we leave you irradiated / Suck it dry and lay to waste / a landscape of desolation.” I’m pretty sure that’s part of a Megadeth song, right there…

But as with bitter medicine, Higginbotham and his crew — singer/keyboardist/thereminist(?) Allison Wilkins McPhail, guitarist/keyboardist Craig Wilkins, bassist Jason Williams, and drummer Jason Carmona — slyly wrap the political message in heavily-layered, meticulously crafted music that brings to mind both the thinking-man’s rock of Radiohead (and, by extension, Radiohead-ites Muse and Athlete) and the lush, pretty-yet-somber melodicism of Aimee Mann.

I’ll admit that I was a little thrown off by The Wheel Workers first effort, 2011’s Unite, in part because it felt like it suffered from kitchen-sink syndrome, trying to do too many things at once. This time out, however, the band’s focused down their sound amazingly well, tying everything together so that even when they do skip from sound to sound — going from the jaunty pop of “Chemicals” to the frantic rock of “Starve the Beast,” for example — it all feels like the same band.

More than anything else, what Past to Present makes me think of is Aussie band Midnight Oil, in that both bands manage to play songs that are overtly political and deadly serious but also still work as ridiculously catchy pop songs.

Look at “Past to Present,” for one, where the band jumps into a bumping groove punctuated by occasional jagged, crunchy-sounding keys (which grab hold of what might otherwise be a too-precious song and make it just a little bit dangerous) and more introspective jangle-pop passages. Beneath the guitars and pianos, Higginbotham’s lyrics are surprisingly dark, pointing to a complacent other person who never bothered to stop and question when things were going well.

Or take “Rainbows,” which is on its surface a bright, epic-sounding, arena-sized rock tune but is actually a (thinly-veiled, now that I’m looking a little closer) declaration that everybody should be able to marry whoever they love, regardless of gender. Or the impassioned, bouncy “Chemicals,” which is one the cheeriest-yet-bleakest pop songs you’re likely to ever hear, with Higginbotham smiling sweetly (sarcastically?) as he croons, “Chemicals / chemicals / fall softly in the rain / and I cannot find words to ease the pain.” It’s earnest and sweet and absolutely awesome.

Despite the seriousness lurking in the words, however, The Wheel Workers never let things drag down into bitterness. Rather, they dash along with a cheeky grin, pointing these things out as they go and never losing a sense that maybe things can change.

One of the high points of the album is “Starve the Beast,” which starts off desperate and worried but becomes steadily more defiant, ending with a rallying cry: “Let’s get together / and occupy the world over.” Sounds like a good plan to me.

(Feature photo by Mark C. Austin.)

[The Wheel Workers are playing their CD release show 3/2/13 at Fitzgerald’s, along with Second Lovers, Jealous Creatures, & The Wandering Bufaleros.]
(ZenHill Records --; The Wheel Workers --; The Wheel Workers (Facebook) --; The Wheel Workers (Twitter) --; The Wheel Workers (Bandcamp) --
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Saturday, March 2nd, 2013. Filed under Features, Reviews.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

13 Responses to “The Wheel Workers, Past to Present

  1. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 2: The Wheel Workers + Mike Doughty + Coheed and Cambria + American Fangs + Drew Ireland Benefit + More on March 2nd, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    […] to mind Radiohead, Midnight Oil, and Fountains of Wayne, all at once. See the full review over here. Oh, and here’s a video the band put together for “Fine Time,” from the new […]

  2. Casey on March 3rd, 2013 at 11:19 pm

    Great review. Just thought I’d let you know that the bassist’s name is Jason Williams, not Jason Wilkins.

  3. Jeremy Hart on March 3rd, 2013 at 11:53 pm

    Ah, dangit. I’m an idiot. :( Thanks for the heads-up!

  4. Radiohead on March 4th, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    Songfreaks Radiohead page…

    Songfreaks is a social music site…

  5. Kara on March 5th, 2013 at 8:59 pm

    I just bought the album, it’s fantastic! I was trying to describe it to a friend and failing – Midnight Oil captures it well I think, thanks!

  6. Jeremy Hart on March 6th, 2013 at 10:27 am

    Glad you like it, Kara! Yeah, they’re pretty ridiculously great… ;)

  7. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 1: The Wheel Workers + Lila Downs + New York City Queens + She Has Hope + Vestibule + More on April 5th, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    […] released new album Past to Present about a month ago, now, and it fulfilled all that aforementioned promise and then some, bringing to […]

  8. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 2: Adam Bricks (rev’d!) + Bang Bangz + Black Flag Tattoo Party + Space City Beat Battle + Woodlands Waterway Arts Fest + More on April 13th, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    […] blazing through their shiny-happy-yet-subversive, politically-minded indie-drama-rock magnum opus, Past to Present, which is also freaking great; I love how the band can play these cheery, warm songs that make you […]

  9. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 2: The Wheel Workers + Glass the Sky + Ruiners (last show!) + Mikey & The Drags + Hell City Kings + Quiet Morning & the Calamity + More on August 23rd, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    […] political at the same time, and that’s no mean feat. Both live and on recent album Past to Present, the Workers’ songs bump and bounce along, making you grin like an idiot until you realize […]

  10. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yes Indeed! 2013 Rundown, Pt. 1: The Wheel Workers + Knights of the Fire Kingdom + Dadsmom + Purple + Sunrise and Ammunition + The Beans + A Sundae Drive on September 12th, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    […] should) find something to love, especially on their most recent album, this past spring’s Past to Present. Take a listen below… [The Wheel Workers play at 9PM at the Last Concert […]

  11. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 1: The Wheel Workers + Glass the Sky + A Sundae Drive + Moon Honey + the last place you look + Blood on the Strand + Deleted Scenes + More on April 15th, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    […] doing this show tonight, BTW, is for the vinyl re-release of last year’s sublime Past to Present. I got a hold of a copy of it today (thanks, Steven!), and it is seriously niiice. Get your own, […]

  12. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. (Early) Weekend, Pt. 1: The Wheel Workers + Father John Misty + Omotai + Inter Arma + Wilco + More on April 23rd, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    […] goes, by the by, not only for 2013’s stellar Past to Present, but also for forthcoming followup Citizens; I’ve been fortunate enough to be allowed a […]

  13. SPACE CITY ROCK » One Band, One Album, Two Videos: The Wheel Workers Rev Up for Citizens Release on May 7th, 2015 at 5:01 pm

    […] Citizens coming down the pike. I was mightily impressed by the band’s 2013 release, Past to Present, and therefore had a pretty high bar set in my mind for the followup. And now that I’ve […]

Leave a Reply

H-Town Mixtape

Upcoming Shows



Recent Posts


Our Sponsors