Last year, former Hot Water Music and current Draft bassist Jason Black told an interviewer in regards to a HWM reunion: “If we play again, it can’t be half-assed, and the first show sure as shit won’t be in Texas.” Well, the legendary post-hardcore outfit from Gainesville is playing again, and it sure as shit ain’t in Texas. The group has scheduled a series of four reunion shows – the kickoff is in Orlando this week, with one in New Jersey and two in Chicago to follow shortly thereafter, and it’s a safe assumption that the shows aren’t going to be half-assed either.
Announced back in early November, the concerts are only part of the Hot Water Music reunion story. The release next week of Til the Wheels Fall Off, the second odds-and-sods collection from the group, is much more notable, especially for those diehard fans unable to attend the concerts. Although HWM only officially disbanded in mid-2006, Wheels marks the first material issued under the band’s name since 2004’s The New What Next. (Vocalist Chuck Ragan has released a series of 7-inches, a studio album and a live album, while the Draft – the three members of HWM who aren’t Ragan – have released a studio album and two EPs.) Gathering up outtakes and compilation tracks recorded since 2001’s Never Ender collection, Til the Wheels Fall Off may not be anything remotely close to a best-of set, but it does an adequate job at painting a picture of the band’s late-period sound.
Only four of the 25 tracks here are technically unreleased: three outtakes from Next and one from 2001’s A Flight and a Crash. In the light of the burly rock of the Draft and the folksy warmth of Ragan’s solo work, it’s hard to understand why tracks as strong as Flight’s outtakes would have been deemed unworthy of album inclusion. But given the band’s more straightforward approach at the time, these Americana-flavored midtempo rockers may not have appealed to their more punk-rock sensibilities. That same stylistic disconnect doesn’t apply to “So Many Days,” which was left off Next. As warm and heartfelt as it is anthemic, “So Many Days” is textbook Hot Water Music and possibly one of their best songs.
Surprisingly, for a castoffs comp, the rest of the disc holds up as a widely varied but overall solid effort. Hearing the band barrel through covers like Government Issue’s “Jaded Eyes” and the Clash’s “The Clampdown” (a near-perfect distillation of the band’s punk influences) is invigorating but jarring when countered with the spare intricacies of “Moonpies for Misfits” or the acoustic guitars–and-strings take on Alkaline Trio’s “Bleeder.” The tugging emotionality, the driving power and the roots flavor of the album as a whole illustrate why Hot Water Music was a big deal to so many people. Wheels doesn’t spotlight the band at their album-focused best, but it does showcase the wide diversity of influences that serve to make their reunion a noteworthy event.