The Steel Wheels - Sideways

The Steel Wheels


Big Ring Records


More than 15 years into their musical career, the Steel Wheels from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, have evolved from an Appalachian stringband into a creative, pop-roots-rock band. A near-constant incline in sonic richness and thematic depth over almost a dozen albums has seen the band gain increased appreciation by critics, fans, and their peers. Without the burden of preservation weighing them down, they have been able to break some traditionalist bluegrass rules and create something wholly original. With confident production courtesy of Sam Kassirer, tight songwriting and hooky lyrical turns, SIDEWAYS is a striking addition to today’s roots-rock landscape, as the band demonstrates that it’s possible to draw from everywhere, without sounding quite like anything else. While upholding the classic sounds of rockers enjoying roots music, there’s nothing overtly retro about the band, other than the good old feelings they conjure up, inciting something entertaining and solid. They aren’t radically altering the source material so much as letting these well-written songs live and breathe according to whatever sounds are available to them in the present day—the very same thing, that so many others have done before them over the decades. Yet the timeless concerns it addresses — the common good, mental health, fatherhood responsibilty, grief and loss—feel especially relevant now. If that suggests a heavy dose of good intentions, rest assured the music feels like an old-fashioned good time, nurturing and satisfying, not just medicinal. The music is enjoyable, warm, heart-filling, soulful pop-rock with acoustic flavours and harmonies—and I can ask for nothing better. Actually, here’s the simplest criteria—I love it! And so will you!

Each song is beautifully suited for taking your thoughts on a journey, so the moment when you slip your earphones on and walk out your door, your mind is already miles away, thanks to the band’s inventive rhythms and hypnotic musical arrangements. Baby’s Gone begins with quiet scratches of a picked banjo, but as the song finds its footing, the instrumentation shifts, first to a groovy, muted soundscape with slinky fiddle and acoustic guitar and then to a percussive, bass-heavy folk-rock vibe as a father faces up to letting-go, as his daughter heads off to college. Melodically ambitious, toying with neo-soul tendencies with a swirling, late 1970s groove, parenthood is also the central theme of Hero, in which a father realises that all his life, like so many of us, he’s been floundering in the job of raising his children. 

Morning Before Long is performed in the vein of a traditional bluegrass piece, despite the darkness of the lyric, perfectly balancing acoustic instrumentation and soulful harmonies. The sublime Yes I Know, explores the intricacies and impermanence of relationships. The song is dressed with an intricate latticework of noodly guitar, yearning violin and a heartbreaking lead vocal. Some of the other tracks on this project are wonderful examples of the group’s individual strengths. Dissidents and Pass The Breaks, a pair of instrumentals, spotlight the group’s talents as dynamic instrumentalists, while Wait On You and Sideways are prime examples of the Steel Wheels’ robust vocal harmonies. It’s clear that the group’s creativity and performance quality is currently throttling at its full potential and it’s thrilling to see. SIDEWAYS is one of the most brilliant albums conceived and recorded so far in 2024. If you can't open your ears to the concept and appreciate the time and effort it took to pull this off, that’s your problem.

February 2024