Alison Mosshart’s first solo album deviates pretty sharply from her work with The Kills and The Dead Weather. It’s a kind of concept album, recorded to accompany her new book of writings and photographs, Car Ma. As the title of the book suggests, it’s principally about cars – but it’s not all steel and engines. In Sound Wheel cars act as vectors of place, people and music. It’s also billed as a spoken word album, but there is more to it than simply Mosshart reciting poetry; while her speaking voice has centre stage here, there are also other voices, elements of sound collage and a few tracks that sound suspiciously like songs.
Sound Wheel proves that there’s plenty of (bad pun klaxon) mileage in an album about cars. Cars are of course more than a means of getting from A to B; they are romanticised and mythologised, and idealised as expressions of freedom and sexuality. They’ve also long been a very fruitful inspiration for songwriters, from Mustang Sally through Prince’s Little Red Corvette to countless rappers bragging about their Lamborghinis. The road is almost a second home to the touring musician so the link between cars and music is inescapable.
The first track, Talk Talk Talk, sets the tone for the Sound Wheel. “Alright, so how’s this working?” Mosshart asks, as a crunchy guitar riff plays in the background. “If I’m in the car and the radio’s on and the window’s down and the engine’s going, what do we get from that? Are you gonna hear me?” Throughout the album cars are more of a setting than a subject matter; there are pieces about things that happened in cars and places travelled to in them. Several track titles directly reflect the latter: LA, Salt Lake City, Miami, Louisiana.
There’s also lots of background noise, as if the low level feedback that accompanies many of the tracks is a representation of engine noise on a long car journey: easy enough to tune out after a while but always present. However, the experience of listening to Sound Wheel in its entirely is more like being in a stop-start tailback in a polluted city then the classic American dream of cruising through empty Midwestern plains or winding around Californian mountain roads.
There are 47 tracks here, most of them very short, and the continuous shift between the different sonic textures that they present is like the relentlessness of constantly having to change gear in slow-moving traffic. Echoes and vocoder-type effects are often applied to voices, there are wind noises, hisses and bleeps, snatches of music. It’s atmospheric, after a fashion, but it feels overproduced and it’s often physically difficult to listen to.
Within the congestion, however, there are some lovely vignettes. In Last Pack Of Holy Smokes, Mosshart finds herself at a Trump campaign rally, admiring the cars of the banner-waving mob – “the last of chrome innocence” – before ultimately predicting that they will end up at auction once Trump is elected and his supporters find themselves worse off. Best of all is Sunday Style: here Mosshart describes hanging around car dealerships as a kid, and being confronted with soft porn posters in the bathrooms. It neatly captures the discord of the female petrolhead, admiring cars whose majority male enthusiasts objectify women as they personify automobiles. This track features nothing but Mosshart’s untreated voice, but there is more tension and atmosphere here than anywhere else in the album.