The Steel Wheels “Sideways”

Big Ring Records, 2024

After honing their craft for almost twenty years, it has to be said that it is nigh on perfect.

artwork for The Steel Wheels album SidewaysSideways‘ is the 13th album from Trent Wagler (vocals/guitar/banjo), Jay Lapp (guitar/mandolin/vocals), Eric Brubaker (fiddle/vocals), Kevin Garcia (drums/percussion/mallet keyboards) and Jeremy Darrow (bass) and, unsurprisingly, the band are incredibly tight together. Every instrument is played to perfection, adding meaning and dimension, and with three singers in the group, the vocal sound is simply stunning. With many of the songs written in the aftermath and unending journies of personal tragic family events in mind, the overarching themes throughout the album are resilience and survival, which each song captures differently and succinctly.

The bar is immediately set high with the mighty ‘Wait on You‘. Whilst the opening and closing lines sum up the fact that the world waits for no one, and we have to get up and get on with whatever life throws at us, the whole song is distinctive and energetic.

This year hit like a hurricane. The winds they knocked me over…
All the books you read were just a wish. If you don’t show up, then you’re finished…

The profoundly moving ‘Baby Gone‘ follows with an almost frantic feeling of loneliness. The title track, ‘Sideways‘, is a fabulously thought-provoking and spinetingling song with a compelling beat. In the words of lead singer and primary songwriter Wagler, “It’s beautiful and crushing to be alive sometimes. We aren’t here to sing songs that only cut one way – but if they do, they’ll cut sideways.”

Wagler wrote the song ‘Hero‘ after his child faced a serious mental health crisis. Whilst in the midst of trying to help, he had the dawning realisation that he had to take a backseat to listen and understand exactly what they needed at that time and says of the refrain: “I thought I was the hero is poking fun at himself for thinking he could or should be able to fix it”. ‘Hero‘ is an enchanting father-daughter song brought to life in a wonderfully crafted video.

The gentle ‘Enemy‘ is followed by the dynamic ‘Dissidents’, a bold and evocative fiddle-led instrumental written by Brubaker. This strength of musicality continues in ‘Good Thing Now‘, a mature, moving anthem dealing with and coming to terms with loss. Throughout the album, the treatment of the instruments entirely complements the vocals and gives absolute structure to the stories being told. The use of closely tracked harmony vocals provides a confident strength and depth, not least in the ethereal ‘Yes I Know‘. ‘Past The Breaks‘ is another full-bodied, rootsy instrumental in which the fiddle, banjo and electric guitar combine to give a wonderfully haunting Appalachian sound. ‘Easy on Your Way‘, a coping song, the heart of which was inspired by the tragically sudden illness and death of Brubaker’s young daughter, does so with a light, bright, refreshing sound. This achievement is nothing short of admirable. The album closes out with the soaring ‘Just Like The Wind‘, complete with more of Wagler’s breathtaking vocals, thoughtful, prudent lyrics and a courteous short electric guitar break in the middle.

The Steel Wheels live up to their name in the most remarkably positive, tasteful, and sensitive way. Their lyrics have a heartfelt, hard truth, yet resilience and positivity win through every time.


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