Biblical prophets, Irish poets and American songwriters have all used the image of a wheel inside a wheel to speak toward some larger unity — of many moving parts operating in a unified sphere. It's hard to know what Kevin Buckley is referencing with the title of his third LP, Wheel Within a Wheel, but it's tempting to look at the cyclical nature of his musical evolution. His upbringing in the Irish folk community, at home and abroad, has always informed his more rock-driven albums New Sense and Gunmetal Gray, but so did albums by the Kinks and Guided by Voices and Sonic Youth. But with this new album and a new cast of supporting musicians, Buckley spins the wheel back around to his acoustic folk roots. Instead of the Irish jigs and reels, though, the record shows a thoroughly American form of songcraft — gentle, bucolic, effortlessly tuneful, but made up of many moving parts.
In his notes on the release of Wheel, Buckley writes of the "heavy and methodical" approach he and his then-bandmates took on 2009's Gunmetal Gray and the inherent difficulty in marrying loud guitar, bass and drums with his strong but tonally nuanced voice. This time around, there's no such noise to rise above: Drums and bass are kept mostly out of the way, and steel guitar, banjo and Buckley's trusty fiddle fill in the gaps. The rootsy progressions on acoustic guitar and layered harmony vocals of "We're Gonna Rock This Town" lead to some charming dissonance with its Kiss-worthy title. Those Irish roots show through on "The Almoner" and the banjo-and-bodhrán breakdown in "Water Flowing Over a Mountain." Buckley and his guests, including Ian Walsh and Eileen Gannon, have such comfort and dexterity with traditional styles and tunes that these tracks feel less like songs and more like sessions. Luckily that sense of pop panache that made the first two Grace Basement records such local exemplars of the form is still in play — note the one-man doo-wop sway on opening track "The Way to Be" or the Rubber Soul nods on "Warmest Winter Clothes." It's the LP's quietest moment, though, that shows the most growth. "Midnight Melody" lopes along like a lullaby but hits its honeyed marks with absolute precision. The song serves as a reminder that as Buckley gets quieter, his songs dig deeper and ring more true.
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