Utah Carol – Wonderwheel

Utah Carol

Truth is, I’ve been avoiding reviewing this album for a while. With 20 songs on it, it feels very long, despite its 45 minute running time that is quite normal for a pop album. Maybe it’s just the pressure I feel to get into the songs themselves to let you, the fine readers, know what to expect. But don’t let this introduction lead you to think that this is not a good album, because it certainly is. While not quite as refined and as musically exploratory as their latest full-length, Comfort for the Traveler, Wonderwheel, the debut album by this Chicago duo, is quite good, light-hearted, and enjoyable pop.
The duo of JinJa Davis and Grant Birkenbeuel do a lot with just two people. They combine a mixture of simple acoustic guitars and voice with vintage organs and synthesizers, slide and electric guitars, and light percussion to create music that straddles between folk and indie pop. Usually light-hearted and up-beat, the band manages to create a lot of hooks and catchy melodies with these playful songs that seem to have a more serious underlying theme belied by their often bouncy, sometimes quiet music.
The album starts pure and simple, with “My Fear” being a soft, simple pop song. “Charmed Life” opens things up, though, bringing in more guitars and organ and light percussion to keep it bouncy and give it a kind of vintage western feel. And “Bluejay” takes a folk feel, a rolling, bouncy beat with JinJa’s sweet female vocals, while both sing at the same time, their male and female voices layering nicely on the keyboard-laden “Boon.” “Walk the Walk” is bouncy and fun, yet simple, while “Cluttered Mind” has a kind of bouncy, head-swaying flow to it.
More western-sounding, even slightly alt-country feeling, “Buffalo” makes use of some nice slide guitar and whistling, and both musicians’ voices really fit the style of music nicely. And “Saying Grace” feels like an old-time country song, even with a bit of a twang to JinJa’s voice. More in the pop vein, “Turn My Way” is all organ-led and uses both singers again. And songs like “Scattered,” a mix of country slide and acoustic guitar and a unique vocal approach, seems perfectly suited to this band. “The Red Car” closes off with a up-tempo but simple and sweet-sounding folkish pop song.
It’s the little musical interludes that make the album feel long, even though they’re short and quite nice. Some are light and airy, others more rocking, but it’s a nice way to break up the full tracks, even if they do feel like incomplete songs. And while Wonderwheel doesn’t push the various genres Utah Carol touches on as much as their more recent album, it’s a nice introduction and a nice dose of light, playful, fun pop.