I’m tempted to say that the most notable quality of Kim Richey’s new album Wreck Your Wheels is understatement. But of course, by definition, understatement isn’t notable because it doesn’t draw attention to itself. Wreck Your Wheels, then, is an album that deserves and rewards close listening. On its surface, this appears to be an album of grooves rather than songs. Not much seems to happen musically. Richey delivers her vocals without any emotional outbursts, and again, on the surface, the emotions seem subdued. But this album is a work of great subtlety. There is actually quite a bit happening musically, and I’m not sure I’ve even discovered it all yet. Likewise, Richey’s vocals perfectly capture the moments of attempted emotional restraint that are the subjects of many of these songs. And from song to song, there is a wonderful variety of musical textures. But there is also a consistency to the sound of the album overall. And that is all the more remarkable when you consider that, while Kim Richey had a part in writing all of the songs, each is done with a different co-writer, except for one who returns on the album’s last song.
The basic band uses drums, bass, acoustic guitar, and keyboards. Sometimes the bass is electric, sometimes acoustic. Electric guitar is often added. Then, on various songs, you may hear trumpet or flugelhorn, banjo, cello, pedal steel, or even bouzouki on one song. Producer Neilson Hubbard does a great job of getting all of these instruments to blend, to the point that you might miss a trumpet part if you don’t listen carefully.
The songs are about turning points in relationships. The title song opens the album, and here is a woman who has been having trouble committing fully to a relationship. She is just coming to the realization that her lack of commitment is hurting her partner. The situation is not resolved in the song, but it feels like progress is being made. This subject is revisited later, in the song Keys. Taken literally, the song is about losing keys, but of that is a metaphor for a narrator who cannot unlock her heart, and let someone else in. Stated here, it sounds corny, but the song is a beautifully written extended metaphor, and Richey delivers a vocal that really puts it over. Leaving 49 has a fairly happy sound to it; it seems to be about a very temporary separation, as if the narrator is going on a business trip. So for a change, we have the eager anticipation of a reunion. When the Circus Comes to Town appears to be the one song that isn’t about relationships. If I were going to make a new film version of Something Wicked This Way Comes, I would use this song for the opening titles. The arrival of the circus is a cause for eagerness, but also for anxiety. I also want to mention the song Back to You. Coming almost at the end of the album, the song is a hymn, a song of faith in love. It is one of the most powerful moments on the album.
So for me, reviewing Wreck Your Wheels is like starting a new friendship. We are still more strangers than not, but I am eager to get to know this album better.
Kim Richey: Leaving 49
Kim Richey: When the Circus Comes to Town