Photo: Patrick Bertolino
I’m not 100% certain how to say this, because I don’t want to jinx things; but I’m loving pretty much everything I’m hearing come out of Houston lately. Our city is full of so much talent and diversity, that it’s hard keeping up with all of it. When you walk the halls of Houston’s famed Sugar Hill studios, pretty much everyone there can tell you about something amazing that they’ve been working on. The name that seems to come up most frequently when you ask about who they’re really liking, is Houston’s The Wheel Workers. The band has this infectious sound that mixes about six different genres to create their own thing. The five piece, lead by the ever prolific Steven Higginbotham is actually dropping the follow up to last year’s double record, “Past To Present.” This time around, the sound is a bit more straight forward and direct, but like with most you’ll hear from the group, as equally amazing as the last release. In seven songs, affectionately titled “Citizens,” The Wheel Workers show just another example of how great the music in our city is.
The band doesn’t waste time in doing things their own way, when they open things up with “Yodel.” The pop that comes from behind the drum kit before the vocals come in make you already realize that this is a different set of works from the band. There’s an anthemic nature to the bridge while prerecorded rhythmic passages play like they’re being used to rally troops. Backing chant like group vocals add to the excitement that the song brings to life where they create a universe for the listener. There’s a clear opening, middle, and end to the track that lets you know that this band knows how to craft a song properly. There’s this mixture of guitar and organ that kind of glides through the song like a hot knife to butter, adding a new element to what would likely be categorized as a rock song otherwise. The band switches things up on the second song, “Burglar.” They add this spacey and electronic sound with a vocal track that sounds like it was doubled with a distorted element added. The backing pop vocals that mix with it are brilliant, where the energy of the song is felt throughout every note. There are moments where you realize that just how the song is crafted, that The Wheel Workers could be some of Houston’s best songwriters. This trippy Moog key and a thunderous drum mix in with several other key sounds to create their own sound, while still sounding like the works you’ve come to associate with the band. In the way that Devo used technology to create something different, The Wheel Workers utilize the same methods to craft a deeper version of the modern day pop song.
By the third track, I would hope that you’d have noticed that The Wheel Workers know what they’re doing, and the slower stride of “Whole Other World” keeps in line with that sentiment. Like a seventies AM radio love song, a steady beat and an organ heavy jam emanate from the speakers. Higginbotham sings about a space explorative world while the band creates a slow jam behind him. The guitar work on the song are top notch alongside a complimentary bassline where the band plays their roles without overshadowing one another. The use of pop elements that are paired with the vision that the band brings to each track are especially evident on the song. The stand out track has a nineties Britpop feel that doesn’t feel lifted, but rather something you’d place closer to what Blur would do than anything else. On “Smokescreen,” the band kicks things off bombastically and kind of drops what feels like a structured jam. They kick things off with an almost epic use of keys, drums, and varying instrumentation that segues back and forth through the opening sequencing. Group vocals couple alongside Higginbotham’s voice and spaced out synths. There’s almost a Beatles element to the song that cris crosses between decades of rock structures to build a world where the listener is dazzled from start to finish. The band takes you into a spaced jam that finds its way back into the original song’s foundation. Usually, when most bands do this, it can lose your attention; but they take you away only to hold your ears and bring you back again.
The band keeps in line with the rock structures in an almost electro new wave kind of way with “Wage Slaves.” By the song titles and lyrics, you can tell that the band is united in their message. Though they convey these political and bleak world views with pop hooks and catchy choruses that make you forget the templates that they’re conveying within. The band utilizes the kind of click beats that echo a modern Radiohead song, on “Run Away,” while they return to that synthy and spaced feel on the following track, “Dream.” The song has the sense of an eighties pop tune while the band caresses every drop of instrumentation they can as the songs lends to a head bopping pace. The way the band uses every element in the best way possible, the curdle of the bass, the intricate key work, the guitars and drums that hit like you want…it’s simply masterful. The backing vocals just add to the elements where you find a band in their element while never causing you to stray from the tune. Things close out with the almost Pearl Jam rock song, “Citizen Incorporated.” The band uses similar components that make the song sound closer to “Spin The Black Circle” than anything else on the release. As with all of these songs, the chorus comes in differently, and thus adding a whole new spectrum to the overall sound of the track. It certainly proves the diversity of the group, and showcases that they can go just as hard as they can any of the other routes they take.
I hope that by the descriptions, that you don’t think that the album is separated or away from itself. The way that the band changes things up on each and every track while keeping their sound and vision for the album under the same umbrella is something that few people can actually pull off. However this five piece does it with ease and precision, and thus adding to the mystique and craft that they’ve become known for. You can see these songs performed just as accurately and precise when The Wheel Workers release “Citizens” to the public at Fitzgerald’s on Friday May 22nd. The all ages show with 8:00 doors will also host New York City Queens, and Oil Boom with a $10.00 cover.