Having styled himself after Guido Anselmi from Fellini’s 8 1/2 on the cover of debut album Snow Angels, Wheel maintains his to-a-fault retro cool here, casting himself on the Out of the City sleeve as Jimmy Stewart’s ‘Scottie’ Fergusson character from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Fittingly, opener ‘Celebrity Blues’ has a hip swagger to it, an ascending whole-tone scale on sci-fi synths sending shivers down the spine, grounded by an epic, lumbering groove that recalls Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’ or Flaming Lips’ ‘Yoshimi’.

The second track, folky ‘Follow’, features a spaghetti Western introduction with haunting cor anglais and a strident string octet play-out. It is with the instrumental arrangements for this album that Wheel’s craftsmanship is perhaps most evident. He features a glittering autoharp on half the tracks, and sumptuous string sections adorn others – most gloriously in ‘Richmond Christmas’, where we exit the song aboard a magic carpet of gushing sentimentality. This is chased (after an electro-acoustic interlude featuring family cat, Sooty) by ‘Linger’, initially reminiscent of There Goes The Fear – era Doves and The Infadels at their dance-rock peak, before launching into a heady mix of Brit-pop, QOTSA and Maiden-esque guitar-duets. While the core of the album’s sound-world is classic-rock guitar, bass and drums (deployed to tremendous effects on Beatles and Stones homage ‘Sonatine II’), Wheel’s arrangements delight on songs such as the delicate ‘No Name’, orchestrated for acoustic guitar, French horn, Viola, ‘cello and bass trombone. Equally of note are Paul Jones’s grooving, Bacharach-inspired piano solo on ‘Station’, and the eerie, sublime ‘All the See Throughs Are Selling Me Out’ – a series of introspective narrative vignettes recalling Lou Reed’s Berlin, underpinned by a composite and improvisatory sonic landscape on which Velvet Underground meets the North Sea Radio Orchestra and Radiohead’s OK Computer.

As with most great albums (and this is meant to be listened to as an album – the tracks are even listed on the reverse of the sleeve as sides 1 and 2), each cut on Out of the City is a carefully crafted gem; and, despite (or because of) considerable stylistic diversity among the ten songs presented, the album works beautifully as a whole, its balanced arc showcasing committed and soulful performances from regular Wheel collaborators Llinos Mae, Doug Grannell and others. There is a good deal of sonic space on Out of the City, I Can’t Sink, the music achieving in places effortless majesty, soaring fragility and grace, and pounding, never-too-earnest grandeur. Vocally, too, Wheel has really arrived on this record, his relaxed self-assurance bringing a mature and heartfelt warmth (think solo-career Jarvis Cocker or Damon Albarn) to lyrics that range from critique of celebrity culture and broadcast media to achingly personal memories of falling in love. He also retains a modicum of vitriol, reminding an ex in the punky ‘Painting Pictures’ that ‘being a bitch doesn’t work that well with me’.

Out of the City, I Can’t Sink is a record that’s honest, sincere, unashamedly aware of its influences, and that wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s pretty close to prefect.

2 Responses to “Stephen Wheel – Out of the City, I Can’t Sink”

  1. Rachael Landen said

    Can’t wait to listen after such an interesting and complimentary review.
    Like the photo Gareth 😉
    Rach x

  2. David Grain said

    We have heard the CD and agree that the work is inspired – Gareth is far better with words than I but I agree with almost all of his review. Stephen Wheel’s music continues to surprise – as I’m sure is his intention.

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