Marianne Nowottny does a very interesting thing on Wagon Wheel and walks a fine artistic line between the familiar and the fresh as she takes a sort of established, country template and subjects it to a touch of avant gardening. It’s a bit like looking at something from a distance and understanding its overall shape and nature but then being surprised on closer inspection as to what it is actually made of. For Wagon Wheel sounds like a long lost, old-time music hall country tune but it is built from as many strange sonic pieces as it is expected sounds.
Steel guitars soothe and soar, banjos pluck hypnotically but the constant kick drum echoes contemporary dance beats, there is musical detail provided by unexpected electronica and the way the snare comes and goes as it walks its wonderfully wonky path creates another unexpectedly new element. There is more than a hint of this being a country record made by someone who doesn’t want to be too closely associated with the genre, someone exploring its ideas but doing so from a distance. In fact, musically it sounds to me like Violent Femmes had they thrown more country sounds into their mix…well, sort of. The great thing about this track is that it is hard to find useful handles and labels to describe it, and that is always a good thing.
All of this makes a lot more sense when you realise that Nowottny is a musical magpie, someone able to flit through genres taking what she loves as the ingredients for her music, which has included everything from jazz, blues, pop, avant-rock—and even classical Chinese and Indian music. It is obvious, therefore, that the established rules are only there as a guideline of what to avoid, to help her to swerve away from the mainstream pack and head off to paint her own musical landscapes.
It’s music that seems to be one thing but upon closer inspection is something else entirely, music that reveals more and more upon every play as you try to work out how she has forged all of these odd musical approaches and strange modus operandi into something that, from a distance at least, sounds so familiar. I guess that’s how subversiveness works best. Very clever indeed.