Quite a few bands have tried to be inspired by the chart-topping Avett Brothers and have found it’s a lot trickier than it seems: that band’s mix of artless country sentiment and alternative rock energy is simple and ingenious enough that any duplication can seem purely derivative. The Wheeler Brothers–native Austinites Nolan, Tyler, and Patrick Wheeler plus two longtime friends–come as close as anyone to picking up the Avetts’ ideas, and they’re being rewarded with a strong live following similar to the one that alerted roots music bookers that something was up with the Avetts. They recently released their debut album, Portraits.
The basic Avett Brothers structure is there: a number of Wheelers’ songs begin with a folky melody accompanied by acoustic guitar and then use power chords to amplify the meaning. But the romantic sentimentality is mostly gone. In its place are ambitious lyrics that often involve some kind of quest, either placed in the perspective of a song’s narrator or as a story about someone else. Lines like “Focus: let us forfeit everything we’ve owned” introduce a philosophical strain that was more common with the ancestors of Americana music than it is in the genre today.
On the other hand, the band is capable of a party anthem like “Sleep When I’m Dead,” written to the “Can’t You See” chord progression, that has gained them a Texas fraternity following. In between are songs with a great variety of sounds, from the bluegrass instruments of classic Americana to Mexican horn groups and even a glockenspiel. “Ghost in the Valley” is an extended meditation on Mexican immigration that goes through several phases and returns to a haunting banjo-accordion combination. The material can come close to spinning out of control, but the band members are churning around in productive waters, and they are showing unusually strong potential in terms of writing songs in which the lyrics and the arrangements play equal roles.
On top of all this, the band is a collection of individuals, with three different lead vocalists and multiple song types that show signs of being welded into a larger and fresh whole. If you enjoy the Avetts it’s a pretty good bet that you will like these guys, but that’s also true of anyone interested in the folk-rock meeting point. The Wheeler Brothers make their local debut at The Ark on Sunday, December 11.