Stephen Wheel albums start big. Snow Angels opened with “Ricochet’; Out of the City took off with “Celebrity Blues”, and new album Cassette Records makes you sit up and listen with the thunderous “Invisible to the Touch”, the song’s title almost ironic as it rumbles and pulsates. Beguiling, retro- futuristic nostalgia follows with filmic, spacious, Pink Floyd-homage “Theme from Star Party 1”, flowing seamlessly into pensive “Loneliness”, a song that sparkles and flickers with brushed drums and backwards guitars. Instrumental “Asa Nisi Masa” is the leading candidate for inspiration behind the album artwork – which evokes Tron, Star Wars and faded forgotten format, the C-90 tape – with its energetic and darkly kitsch 80s electronica supporting the lolloping, bounding guitar narrative. Proving that great pop songs don’t need words, it’s always this tune that I come away singing. “Can’t Let Go” could be straight off of The Bends, bleeding with the conviction that Radiohead have been missing the last 15 years.  “Watcher in the Wind” recalls Wheel’s Morricone moment in “Follow” from Out of the City, and is reminiscent of Neil Young’s Heart of Gold, with its relaxed ensemble grooves and searching trumpet solo. “Tinder Box” evokes Flaming Lips in its instrumentation and the sense of meandering discontent emphasized in the lyric, before “Theme from Star Party 2” brings listeners back home to rock, with pounding drums front-and-centre, tapering to a soaring 6/8 outro and heavy brass supplying bolstering gravitas. Cassette Records closes with a tender coda, an urgent and melodramatic, solo piano reprise of “Asa Nisi Masa”, recorded with the microphones so far inside the piano you can hear the body of the instrument and the hammers working every stroke.  Like every other cut here, this track has soul.

At 35 minutes, Cassette Records is short by today’s industry standards, but its length matches several Beatles LPs. The album does not let you rest. It rarely stays in one time signature, shifting between 4, 5, and 6 to a bar. The writing and performances are really strong, as we have come to expect from Chasing Magpies Productions. As on Wheel’s previous offerings, the string arrangements on Cassette Records are sublime, placing Wheel among the more sophisticated producers in contemporary rock. He takes the vocals up a notch on this album too, with rich layering on “Invisible” and “Can’t Let Go” adding a dimension hitherto unheard in his work. Wheel has found a creative equal in engineer Charlie Francis (his Tenzing Norgay), who makes everything sound tremendous.  While there is an abiding melancholy to the album, it’s also playful and endearing. Wheel never seems like he’s out to prove anything, or to be anyone other than himself. He loves making music, and he makes music to love.

Cassette Records is available from 28 June 2014.
Listen to and order the music here: stephenwheel.bandcamp.com

 

 

 

 

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