In the contemporary debate between the “rockist” and “poptimist” camps, we’ve somehow forgotten that these two genres don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can prefer strong, driving rock-n-roll with pop sensibilities while still liking well-crafted pop tunes powered by a keen rock edge. Enjoying excellent music shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. And as a means of introduction to this brave new world where pop and rock exist in harmony, I encourage you to engage with the songs of The Wheel Workers.
On their new record, entitled Citizens, this Houston, TX-based quintet crafts eight tracks packed with vintage pop-rock goodness and sociopolitical commentary. Think of it as a combination of Clash-esque political activism, Brit-pop twinges from The Bends-era Radiohead, and buzzy rock that could have set easily next to The Cars, Duran Duran, and The Cure on ‘80s radio. Or to get super “music critic” about it, the band rejects easy sonic classification without being obtuse, and the arrangements are accessible without being simplistic or cliched.
In terms of a pure listening experience, The Wheel Workers’ stellar chemistry results in a cohesive sound and refined aesthetic. Steven Higgenbotham’s strong lead vocals stand tall in the mix without dominating, as the background vocals of Allison McPhail and Craig Wilkins deliver delightful harmonies while filling out the space. Higgenbotham and Wilkins provide ample guitar work comprised of equal parts rock crunch and pop whimsy. McPhail then bolsters the sonic impact tunes with her prodigious skill on organ, keyboards, and theremin, giving the band a distinctive sound all its own.
I’d be remiss not to mention the contributions of Tyson Sheth and Dan Workman. Sheth’s superb drumming supplies the necessary rhythmic backbone for the songs, but does so in a way that allows him to flex both his rock muscles and penchant for indie-pop syncopation. On the other hand, super-producer Workman (most famously of Culturcide) delivers keen production acumen by enhancing the band’s kinetic and catchy arrangements with a classic pop-rock feel that never goes over the top.
Citizens is at its best when The Wheel Workers combines taut, crisp pop with challenging lyrics. On “Smokescreen,” Higgenbotham intones, “Competing myths and conflicting worldviews / Rage against themselves and yet / Blind to the source that they both share.” With “Wage Slaves,” we hear this clarion call: “Gain strength in union / To Resist, push back / And search to find ourselves / A better way.” Closing out this superb record, “Citizen Incorporated” mockingly uses the language of the “1 Percent” who wield economic and political power – “I’m a citizen of the world / Mailbox in a tax haven / I’m buying off those who pass the laws / Yes you gotta pay to play.”
So, feel free to reject the false dichotomy that forces you to choose between elitism and populism. Choose The Wheel Workers’ combination of strong words and great music that results in classic pop-rock encouraging you to think. Nothing wrong with that!