The Steel Wheels - Sideways
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Sideways (Big Ring, 2024)

The Steel Wheels

Reviewed by Jim Hynes

"Sideways" is the 11th album in less than two decades from the Shenandoah Valley, Va.-based string band, The Steel Wheels, an understated commercial entity as well, owning their own record label and hosts of the Red Wing Roots Music Festival. This album will strike fans as a bit quieter and reflective than past material as principal writer Trent Wagler, writes in response to loss, and accompanying uncertainty stemming from the sudden, unexpected loss of fiddle player and vocalist Eric Brubaker's young daughter. As with 2017's "Wild As We Came Here" the band teamed with producer Sam Kassirer, who urged them to add the extra sonic textures of keyboards and drums to co-mingle with the acoustic instruments.

Opening "Wait on You" is an upbeat tune brimming with their signature Appalachian instrumentation and teeming harmonies, with the salient message to be ready because the world doesn't wait on us. The banjo driven "Easy on Your Way" speaks to the difficulty of giving and staying strong in trying times. Though the banjo is prominent, sonics are denser on "Baby Gone" while the song "Hero" plays to foot tapping back porch beat that underlies the serious issue of mental issue, trying to help one's child in the hero's role and the anxiety that comes with the pain of inadequacy one feels while watching close ones suffer. On the title track, the band copes with resilience, stating that "Some feelings grow sideways."

This is not to suggest that the album is overly dark though the band reveals that side in portions of the folk-like "Enemy" and the fiddle featured instrumentals "Dissidents" and "Past the Breaks." Lush, joyous harmonies imbue "Good Thing Now" and the celebratory, pulsating "Morning Before Long" best captures the band's rousing energy. The closing "Just Like the Wind" is as defining a track as any, attesting to the transitory nature of life, essaying both the beauty and joy of being alive as resilience enables us to withstand the hardships. Sonically diverse, the album invites repeated listens, but it's the insightful lyrics that are even more attention getting.

CDs by The Steel Wheels

Sideways, 2024 Everyone A Song, Vol. 1., 2020 Over the Trees, 2019 Wild As We Came Here, 2017 No More Rain, 2013

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