Theo Katzman drives it out of the park with 'Be The Wheel'

by Jonah Lefkoff

Theo Katzman drives it out of the park with 'Be The Wheel'

Opening an album with the title track is a bold move, a statement that you’ll start strong and only get better. For his fourth studio album, Theo Katzman takes the menagerie of ballads and rock classics he’s known for, and refines them into a masterclass of storytelling through song.

What’s most impressive is that Katzman recorded the whole album at the same time as Vulfpeck’s new sauna classic, Schvitz. As a frequent collaborator of the Vulf universe, it’s amazing that he has so much time to devote to his own sound. Even though it’s his solo project, he brought along fellow pack member Joe Dart and his ear-filling bass tones on his custom Ernie Ball Music Man.

After the flowing falsettos and sparkly percussion in “Be The Wheel,” Theo begins to meld an 80s-era Juno synth line with a pop-rock chorus in “Hit the Target.” He encourages the listener in his classic sardonic tone that “You can’t just hit yourself in the head/You have to hit the target instead.” As if you thought he couldn’t bring the energy any higher, Theo pushes it to the top of the level meters (literally) by crafting an over-compressed guitar and vocal line in “Corn Does Grow.” It’s this high point in volume that is the weak point of the album, losing half a star. While it shows he’s still trying to push his sound in new directions, the abrasive tone is just too much.

Far and away the catchiest chorus, “Five Watt Rock” keeps the listener humming all day. Layering his own vocals in a delectable format, plus guitar and Rhodes solos, along with the ad-lib cheering make you want to grin uncontrollably when the track is over and you flip the record.

After a powerful A-side, Theo takes a mellow turn on the back of the LP. Five fantastic ballads recounting everything from romance to finance seamlessly wrap around the room. The most striking track on the album is “Smiling in Your Sleep,” a cross between a jazz ballad from the likes of Chet Baker and a soul crooner like Sam Cooke. The idea of having both the crunchiest vocals and jazz brushes on the same album is no small feat. A plucky, muted piano tone accompanies the cleanest bass line on the album in “That’s the Life.” Theo’s ability to sing his piano solos at the same time as he plays is nothing short of entrancing. “Desperate Times” is reminiscent of a later Ben Folds solo album in the style of the piano man vs. the world. Twisting a classic Hunter S. Thompson quote, Katzman remarks “when the big get weird, the weird get high.”

Singing a love ballad about a fling is one thing, singing about your lifelong love is another. Theo bashes both of these and imposes on the listener in his final track, “Nobody Loves You Like Your Mother.” At the end of the day, this album is proof that Theo can hold his own in the ever growing entourage of young L.A. retro pop artists.