The Wheel Workers always surprise me. I have somehow convinced myself they are going to sound one way and then they never ever do. This is generally a pleasant surprise, and the Houston five-piece's third album, Citizens, is generally a pleasant record. A lot of what makes the band so damned much fun to listen to is the frankly brilliant synth work Steven Higginbotham, Allison McPhail and Craig Wilkins weave throughout each track, which lends a spacey quality to the music. It’s definitely the aspect of the music that sets the band apart from the rest of the pack.
Granted, it can occasionally get a little overbearing. “Burglar” in particular suffers from making you feel like you’re getting punched in the head by a Korg. The album is stronger on tracks like “Yodel” that stand strong on a foundation of cybernetically augmented Texas rock.
But Citizens is also an album with a tremendous conscience. Lyrically the themes deal a great deal with how we treat our fellow human beings on a grand scale. “Wish some space invaders would soon pay us a visit/ we’ll finally become human beings” stands out right from the beginning of the record. However, “Wage Slaves” truly stands out as the summation of Citizens. At times it reaches a little hard for political language, and frankly it’s pretty clear the Workers have been listening to a bit too much Devo lately, but the message of unification against corporate masters is powerful. Not only that, it’s wedded to an industri-pop riff so catchy it's unforgettable.
“Whole Other World” is another standout that addresses the same themes. Here, though, the Workers stray almost into a trip-hop approach that is sinister and disturbing. In fact, it wouldn’t be amiss to say that Citizens is overall rather unnerving. Even on the more upbeat tracks, many of the songs are tied to a sense of despair that avoids grimness simply by having so much with their happy keyboard musicality.
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McPhail makes but a single vocal appearance, backing up Higginbotham on “Run Away," which is a shame. Don’t get me wrong, Higginbotham is a tremendous singer with a preacher’s croon that captures your attention, but McPhail has this lovely ghost of tone that I’d like to hear take front and center in a track once in a while. “Run Away” also shows off something odd abut Citizens: the Workers' tendency to drag out the end of their songs. It’s not bad, necessarily, but you do sort of find yourself wondering when the next track is going to start. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and just assume they like playing so much they don’t want it to be over.
A lot of the quirks that the Wheel Workers get away with can be laid at the feet of drummer Tyson Sheth. For such a beepy-boopy band, he is a solid timekeeper who carries the record through the weird changes of “Citizen Incorporated.” He’s also the kind of drummer who knows when a song needs thunder to launch certain aspects, and he delivers a rolling madness that counterpoints nicely with the flashes of synth.
Citizens is a very solid album. Higginbotham has a gift for thematic vision and the ability to bring it to life in the studio. Lyrically he’s a prole, but a gifted prole who often launches an ingenious turn of phrase in between his more journeyman lines. The record delivers a very unique form of pop-rock that dares big and mostly delivers on its big promises. I definitely recommend it.
The Wheel Workers play Fitzgerald's tonight with New York City Queens and Oil Boom. Doors open at 8 p.m.