On the cover of this CD, which shows the five undressed band members crammed into a backyard pool, the Tumbling Wheels look like a bunch of out-of-time hippies. They sound like one too, and that’s a compliment: If you’re going to play old-fashioned string-band music, the last thing you want to do is sound contrived or ironic. Slightly tongue-in-cheek is fine, though, and part of this album’s appeal is its overall good-naturedness.
A bigger part is the songwriting; as the Wheels (who named the CD after a previous band incarnation) are good at writing new songs that sound old. The haunting tunes “Don’t Forget Me” and “Sleepwalking” are keepers, and “Tumblin’ Wheels” is a classic-model wanderlust song. “Oh Shit!” is their drinking/hangover song and probably a rouser live; but on disc you can catch clever lyric lines like “the dawn cracks its yolk over me” and “I’m gonna crunch those numbers like a bag of kettle corn.” “Rotten Town,” which opens the disc with some folkish a cappella harmonies, is a nice local variation on the Ewan MacColl/Pogues favorite “Dirty Old Town.”
There’s nothing fancy in their instrumentation—on most tracks, acoustic bass is the lead instrument—and there are occasional echoes of Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks (we would in fact love to hear this band cover “How Can I Miss You When You Don’t Go Away”). Much of the spotlight rightly goes to Rachel Wolf, an open-hearted singer who, on “You Never Showed Me How,” manages to get some poignancy out of a lyric about crawfish.