(Mountain Roads, 2009)
Gospel has been integral to bluegrass as long as there's been bluegrass -- about 65 years now -- so the Bible-based content of Wheeler's Wheeler is not new, even if mostly newly minted. Wheeler does, however, exemplify an unhappy trend: the one-word name. For reasons I'm sure I can't explain via reason coolly applied, it would suit me if the names of bluegrass bands continued to be distinguishable from the names of pop and rock groups.
On the other hand, pop sounds are indeed to be heard in Wheeler, though it is entirely acoustic and features some tasty bluegrass harmonies. The five-member Wheeler is a young band, taking its name from Tiffany Wheeler (lead and harmony vocals) and Kevin Wheeler (lead and harmony vocals, upright bass), who between them contribute about half of the material. Tiffany's cuts in particular (but not quite all of them) reflect the influence of the kind of country-pop gospel you're almost sure to encounter somewhere on the dial as you're surfing cable television. If that approach is not especially to my taste, I freely concede that she does it capably. In fact, the singing is strong throughout, the picking clean and masterly, the arrangements thoughtfully conceived.
This is not Bill Monroe or the Stanley Brothers but something that used to be called newgrass, in other words more bluegrass-like -- or (as misanthropes and mouldy figs would insist) bluegrass-lite -- than the thing itself. While Wheeler hails from Virginia, it sounds neither especially Southern nor particularly Appalachian. It could have come from anywhere, in contrast to Mountain Roads' other releases, which highlight a more traditional, more clearly regional sound. My listening preferences are not generally newgrass-oriented, but I know the worthwhile stuff when I hear it. To me, Wheeler's version of the old-time hymn "What a Day That Will Be," gloriously unaccompanied, is the CD's high point.
Because this is Wheeler's first album, we will have to wait for the second to learn if it plans to expand its repertoire to encompass secular-themed songs. The band's talent is palpable. One hopes that as Wheeler rolls down the bluegrass highway, this talent will be applied to material of greater emotional range and narrative content.
7 November 2009
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