David Olney: The Wheel

David Olney
The Wheel

Although the cyclical subject matter David Olney has chosen here is primordial, the music is comprised of folk music in all its vast and varied incarnations, from the days before recording devices all the way through to the advent of rock and roll. If that seems too broad a range, David Olney is here to tell us all different. As a well-versed student of the folk music form, he has both the musical and lyrical ability to synthesize it into rich folk mythologies and allegories of people in love, at work, at play and at war. The central theme throughout the album, as the title might suggest, is the cyclical nature of existence, affected by the forces of God and of nature.

Olney fires it up, or rather kindles it up, with a brief, deep and somber solo a cappella entitled “Wheels”. The odd style of this introduction, not unlike a canticle, is repeated in various forms in between songs. All under half a minute long, “Now I Start”, “Precious Time, Precious Love”, and “Round” are unaccompanied by music and serve as thematic dividers throughout the record. Next out is the unmistakable bar-blues romp of “Big Cadillac” — replete with B.B. King-style electric blues. A fiddle and a T.V. western clippety-clop are the painted sunset for “Voices on the Water”, a contemplation on the cycle of human life: the protagonist being a worn man who “used to run like the devil” but has now been reduced to a handful of dust as he hears the voices, presumably of divine beings, calling him to glory.

In the straight-on rock and roll “God Shaped Hole”, Olney growls “Well I got religion / And I got it bad / And it made me crazy / Yeah it made me mad / So I blew it off / And I got free / Now I’m just as lost as I want to be”. The symbolism here is as clear as the music is simple; you can hang out at the God Shaped Hole-in-the-wall or instead fill the void in your soul and live virtuously, all to the tune of a fiddle played, in spirit anyway, by the devil himself.

“Revolution” employs the seasons as a metaphor for war: a dying autumn tells her frightened troops to “save their strength for winter”, towards which they are powerless. The soldiers, or seeds as it were, wait patiently for their liberation and ultimate overthrow of winter that springtime brings, after which summer is the lush reward. “Stonewall” is the forlorn song of a soldier who, after the fighting is done, longs to “Cross over / Over the river … in the shade of the trees”. The soldier returns home, grows old and his desire to cross over now takes on a new, more mortal significance. The wheel rears its head again. The music on this track is a particularly good complement to the tone evoked by Olney’s beautiful lyrics. His voice is also right in synch with the melancholy mood. This is not always the case. He sings in a distinctly American manner which suffers from a sameness throughout each song. That is, his vocal range lacks the fluidity needed to adapt as one might hope. As well executed as the music is, the voice can distract from the overall effect. The gruff guy singing along to the boogie of “Boss Don’t Shoot No Dice” should not be the same guy as the one on “The Girl That I Love” or “All the Love in the World” — both quiet ponderings on romance. Then again, not to totally discredit my own self or anything, there are plenty of modern masters such as Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and the late Townes Van Zandt to prove that the voice can effectively take a back seat to the poetry. What do I know anyway? I am but a critic. “Round” wraps it all up by fusing previous thematic dividers into one medieval-ish chorale.

The idiosyncrasies of Olney’s compositions will ultimately prevent him from having more than a limited audience — but what a shame, then, that such a thoughtful, though certainly not unflawed, writer of songs does not play a larger role in modern-day music making.