Laura Stevenson, Wheel
Alright, so I’d liked Laura Stevenson when I’d heard her previously — the songs were good, her voice was stellar, and the whole thing had a nicely warm, friendly feel to it that I enjoyed. After hearing Wheel, though, I’m left with a far, far deeper appreciation for her as a singer, a musician, and a songwriter.
First and foremost, it’s Stevenson’s vocals that grab me here. She sings like a streetwise, slightly-countrified Tori Amos at points, as on opener “Renee,” and like a less-otherworldly Stacy DuPree (Eisley) at others, like “Every Tense,” and her voice is gorgeous and expressive, high and sweet without being cloying or saccharine. What’s truly remarkable, though (although perhaps not so surprising, given that she spent time in choirs her youth), is how Stevenson’s able to control her voice absolutely perfectly, letting it quaver just so for a bare second before cutting it off.
Beyond that, she’s ridiculously nimble vocally, dashing out a series of rapid-fire lines (see “Bells and Whistles”) while keeping the song as a whole rolling along beautifully. In that sense, Stevenson almost brings to mind Ani DiFranco, particularly on the dizzyingly fast (but still acoustic) “The Move.”
The songs, for their part, bounce between more delicate, folkier stuff like “Renee” or the minimal, warm, up-close “The Hole” and more rough-edged pop-rock, like “Triangle” or the rumbling, crashing, impossible-not-to-rock-out “Eleonora.” There’s a nicely rootsy vibe to all of it, even the poppier songs, but it’s less “country” and more “road-worn,” the sound of a songwriter and a band that have come together playing on shabby stages in dingy bars.
That’s not to say there’s not a country/folk influence peeking through, of course — particularly on the aforementioned “Renee,” which swings along like a stately country waltz, or “Sink, Swim,” which is rollicking and speeding, it’s definitely in there. It’s leavened, though, with a big, smart pop sensibility, and that’s what makes Wheel as a whole work.
I can’t help but compare this album to The New Pornographers’ Mass Romantic, honestly, because the two blend raggedy-yet-tuneful guitars and strong, beautiful female vocals amazingly well. On “Runner,” a track that’s probably my favorite song on the whole album, the bouncy, peppy feel, chiming guitars, and doubled-up beat make me think of “Letter From an Occupant” a whole heck of a lot, albeit with the women from Eisley on the vocals in place of Neko Case. Ditto for “Bells and Whistles,” which is stomping and wry, with playful vocals and instrumentation (courtesy of Stevenson’s now-unnamed backing band, the Cans) that gets loud right when you don’t expect it to.
Despite the prettiness and subtle grin, though, there’s an undercurrent of bitterness flowing through Wheel, even if it’s hard to make out at times. Stevenson delivers the lines in “Sink, Swim” with a smirk, but if you listen close, it sounds like okay, maybe she’s not playing around. Then there’s “Telluride,” which starts out jangly and roots-rock-ish at first but soon sweeps upwards into a desperate, anguished howl that actually caught me off-guard the first time I heard it. Closer “The Wheel” brings it into focus more, with Stevenson coming right out and declaring, “There is a man / and I hate him plainly.”
Taken as a whole, Wheel feels like Stevenson finally coming into her own, shedding the earlier phases of her music and demonstrating — for the first time, maybe — what she’s really, truly capable of. And yeah, it’s really something.