I’ve always kind of identified more with the Italian half of my heritage than the Irish half. The Italian side are much more recent (20th century) immigrants to the U.S.; and the only grandparent I ever had, after the age of about 2, was my Italian paternal grandmother. My mother even learned how to make a mean Sunday gravy.
Given all that, though, something in my half-Irish blood perks up at any sights or sounds that even hint at Gaelic origins. Some type of genetic recognition, maybe. My favorite gangster movie, for example, isn’t The Godfather. It’s Miller’s Crossing with its story of loyalty, friendship, honesty / dishonesty and that beautiful, Carter Burwell-composed score.
On her latest album for Don Giovanni, Wheel, Laura Stevenson creates that kind of Americana that, at least to me, sounds like its rooted in some of the sounds of Ireland. Fiddles, horns, and Stevenson’s unique voice combine to make my half-Irish blood perk up in that way that it does. It’s filled with recurring themes like the power of nature, lying, and — yes — wheels.
“Renée” opens the record, building from just acoustic guitar to include strings, horns, and soaring vocals. It reminds me of the opening credits to a film like Miller’s Crossing. It includes a conversation with the full moon who says, “If it wasn’t for me, the waves won’t come.” “Sink, Swim,” a raucous stomper like something from River City Extension, predicts an apocalypse of earthquakes, bees, and tidal waves for California (“It’s all your fault.”). On “Telluride,” which features some stunning vocals, Stevenson sings “Havasu, you’ve half a mind to take me right under you,” before belting the chorus.
Stevenson appears to harbor some guilt about lying, telling someone, “I was wrong to lie like that” about painting a rosy picture of life on “Bells and Whistles.” On “The Move,” Stevenson admits to being a “liar and a thief” when she confesses that her craziness isn’t actually temporary. The closing line on “Telluride” is “Tell a lie. I’ve told it 1,000 times.”
Wheels here aren’t about changing seasons or the cycle of life. Instead, they’re more about either futility or steady plodding. On single “Runner” — which features “CoolDad Music’s Favorite Choruses of 2013” contender, “The summer hurts!” — Stevenson sings “We’re just spinning where we stand.” On “Every Tense” the chorus of “We turn over like a wheel” follows “They’re gonna disappear, but we’ll be here. We’ll be here.” “Turn over like a wheel” comes back again on album-closer “The Wheel.” “I won’t be merciful,” Stevenson sings, “I will be real, real slow, just like a wheel. Turn over.”
Wheel sees Stevenson completing the transition from her punk beginnings with Bomb The Music Industry! to full-on singer / songwriter. She’s created a sound that pulls from American and Irish folk, and she delivers it all in her unique and beautiful voice.
Wheel is out now on Don Giovanni Records. You can catch Laura Stevenson this Friday, September 20th, at Asbury Lanes along with The Amboys, Cayetana, and Dentist.