“My Time”, the opening track off of Gold Boots Glitter, is nearly a perfect encapsulation of Wheeler Brothers’ roots-rock sound. It begins with an easygoing folk vibe dominated by a kick-drum beat and a ukulele. When Nolan Wheeler’s vocals come in, he’s quickly accompanied by the harmonies and “Ooo"s of the rest of the band. It’s a pleasant, melodic start, and the underlying tambourine enhances the folky vibe of the song. Gradually, an echoing electric guitar sneaks in for accompaniment. But at the halfway point, the song opens up into a full-on rocker, with crashing distorted guitar chords, background organ, and a harmonized guitar duet before sliding back into the original folk feel. Then the song ends quietly, with a solo ukulele outro after everything else has faded away.
It’s the kind of strong first song that can make one wonder if the rest of the album can hold up to it. Fortunately for the Wheelers, Gold Boots Glitter is nearly that good the rest of the way. Second track “Straight and Steady” has both a bouncy feel and a haggard, “seen it all” viewpoint, which is an interesting juxtaposition. The “do do-do-loo do-do-loo do-do-loo ahh-ohh” refrain cuts through all the lyrics and makes the complaints about losing your job and sinking under your mortgage and getting drunk all the time seem not so bad. That sort of cynicism isn’t typical of the album, though, which is often sardonic but just as often straight-faced and heartfelt.
That straight-faced emotion is exemplified by the soaring guitar and vocal melody of “Heather”. The song is a widescreen-sounding love letter to “central Texas” (the band is based in Austin) and the happy-sounding glockenspiel just enhances the song’s sunny outlook. The track is capped off by a bright, fleet-fingered guitar solo that’s reminiscent of Phish, which is an unusual touchstone for a roots-rock band. “You Got A Lot of Love”, on the other hand, maybe goes a bit too far on the heartfelt side of things, with saccharine lyrics and a mawkish string accompaniment pushing the song into the “cheesy” zone.
The brothers’ (yes, the band is made up of three actual Wheeler brothers and friends A.J. Molyneaux and Nathan Rigney) sense of humor comes out best in “Struggle With it All You Like”, which begins as a rare rallying cry for the subdivisions and strip malls of America. “Ain’t nothing wrong growing up in the suburbs / Don’t let nobody tell you otherwise / Ain’t nothing wrong with convenience / On your next trip to see me I’ll make it hard / Struggle with it all you like.” Musically the song has one of the album’s catchiest guitar riffs while the upbeat middle section gives drummer Patrick Wheeler a chance to show off his chops. The high energy country-rocker “Sleep When I’m Dead” is a lot of fun musically, but it isn’t so successful lyrically, with its cliché road-dog lyrics that aren’t nearly as amusing as the band seems to think.
As good as the opener “My Time” may be, the album’s true highlight is the hard-hitting “Under a Bridge”, which is anchored by a chunky hard-rock guitar riff and Nolan Wheeler’s passionate vocal delivery. The lyrics are a simple sketch about a homeless man, but the refrain “Under a bridge / Shakin’ in the wind” sits up against a syncopated rhythm designed to get heads nodding, and is an excellent of example of what the band can do when they play all-out.
The back end of Gold Boots Glitter shows off a few more elements of Wheeler Brothers’ sound. “I’ve Been Around” opens with a nice a cappella harmony intro and then brings back the ukulele to emphasize the song’s laid-back, bass-driven groove. “Yukon” has Nolan Wheeler’s best line of the album, where he declares passionately “Drunk sleep is not real sleep!” after complaining “Feels like I constantly awake from the dead.”
Wheeler Brothers do a lot of different things well and it puts them a step ahead in a crowded genre. They consistently straddle the genres of folk, rock, and country, and liberally pull elements from each as needed. Their songwriting is strong, and their instrumental skills, while not virtuosic, are definitely above average. Most importantly they sound like they’re having a lot of fun, and that not-too-serious outlook keeps Gold Boots Glitter entertaining even when an individual track isn’t top-notch.
// Notes from the Road
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