Laura Stevenson was born with musical blood in her veins. Stevenson's grandparents are both notable musicians. Her grandfather Harry Simeone wrote the Christmas classics "Little Drummer Boy" and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and her grandmother sang in Benny Goodman's band. Holy crap! For Laura, after singing with multiple choral groups in high school (can you say a cappella nerd?), she joined up with the punk community, eventually landing in a keyboard role with Bomb the Music Industry! She started writing her own songs, and came into some popularity after a split 7-inch with Bomb in 2009.
Her first (mini-) album, 2010's A Record, had good songs but suffered from weak production, some messy performances (especially on the louder, faster numbers) and weak arrangements. You could tell it was a rush job, done on the cheap. It happens. 2011's Sit Resist fixed a lot of these problems and was an even stronger set of songs to boot.
Although their name is missing from Wheel's spine, The Cans play an even bigger role throughout this set. This is a good thing. Their arrangements are thoughtful, diverse and often powerful. Right away, "Renee" displays incredible dynamic range in the song's many peaks and valleys (though the strings sound SO much like traditional Irish ballad "Shenandoah"). Then "Triangle" just rocks the fuck out, digging in harder than the group ever have before, while "Bells and Whistles" gets downright chaotic in the intro, only to pull itself back together for verses with a gorgeous cello countermelody.
Patting her band on the back is not meant as a knock against Stevenson and her ability to carry a song on her own; in fact, the large full-band song quotient makes the hushed songs that much more effective. "The Move", for one, she rocks alone, killing on the acoustic with abundant hammer-ons and a Tallest Man on Earth vibe. "The Hole" begins with her alone, then busts into a hoedown halfway through with cool mandolin and fiddle features. These quiet songs let her words shine through, an undoubtable strength of the songwriter.
Lyrically, she ties the album together with the wheel as a simile. From "Every Tense" - "You're carrying all that you own, carrying all that you own and on and on and we turn over, we turn over like a wheel." which pops up similarly in the title track closer - "I'm like a wheel. I'll be real, I'll be real. I'll turn over like a wheel." And from "Runner," "You said, "we're just spinning where we stand.'"
Wheel shows consistency and ecleticism. There is great melancholy and great pop melodies. The previously mentioned "Runner" bounces along with an extremely singable chorus, while the six-minute "L-Dopa" lays back with a slow build, adding accordion along the way then later horns and explosive cymbal hits. But one thing missing here is Laura letting â??er rip vocally. Her high range is more under control here and I miss the high, screeching presence like on the end of Sit's "Master of Art." There is a little bit on the bridge of "Eleonora" (not related to the seedling song "Eleanor" from A Record), but it's tucked back in the mix and not as harsh.
Stevenson and her band have been improving in every aspect since their inception, and they've nailed it here on Wheel. I can't wait to see what they do next.