[23 May 2007]
Of all the under-the-radar bands to have emerged from the last decade, Wheat is one of the more intriguing. At their outset, everything about them created what all bands need and few possess: mystique. Originally just a duo consisting of singer/guitarist Scott Levesque and drummer Brendan Harney, Wheat proclaimed themselves an art project, which in itself is interesting enough to generate buzz. Most bands think of themselves as artists, but how many consider themselves a project per se, an assemblage of people making noise for the sake of seeing what might happen? Sure, this could be just a really clever excuse for making any conceivable noise and calling it music, but Wheat didn’t just make noise—they made captivating noise, noise with enough structure and melody and rhythm to slowly pull you in.
In fact, Wheat were always more of a pop band than anything approaching an art project, a reality they gradually accepted with each successive release. While their first album, 1998’s Medeiros, combined the lo-fi acoustic sensibilities of vintage GBV with the classic pop melodicism of the Shins, Wheat were already eyeing a fuller, more mainstream sound by their sophomore release. This sound was more easily transcribed when guitarist Ricky Brennan joined the band; his sharp sense of structure and melody lent the band a decidedly pop slant, and all that Wheat were missing was their own Phil Spector, otherwise known as someone with knowledge and artistic balls. To this end, 1999’s Hope and Adams was produced by David Fridmann, and while it contained a couple of pure noise pieces, it was vintage work from the Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev collaborator—awash in subtle layers of instrumentation painstakingly and beautifully laid upon one another.
This is where Wheat became, for a half-second, something of a pop phenomenon. Hope and Adams included the song “Don’t I Hold You”, a catchy but ultimately slight song that found its way into Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown. The song didn’t just appear in the movie—it appeared during the inspirational and mandatory scene in any Crowe film where the down-and-out male protagonist finds salvation in the form of a young beauty. Nice! This was proof that Wheat were flirting with pop aspirations, and they tried to take advantage of the attention with 2003’s Per Second, Per Second, Per Second… Every Second—an album that was more mainstream in sound, but one they ultimately disavowed. After this release failed to attract a larger audience, guitarist Brennan left the group.
This brings us to Levesque and Harney’s latest release, the pretentiously-titled Everyday I Said a Prayer for Kathy and Made a One Inch Square. In case you’re wondering just what the hell the title means, Harney explains that it’s about “remembering through a ritual”, or, if it helps, what Joseph Campbell would have called sacred time and sacred space. It’s a nice, poetic thought, that’s for sure, but it still smells of arrogant and intentional obscurity. And—in that regard—the album title is perfect, for the entire album reeks of unnecessary ostentation. After the first few tracks, you can’t help but wonder if the duo is simply trying to confuse the audience into liking the album, as it’s only natural to go along with something you fear might be beyond your comprehension. A couple of more listens, though, and you realize that this is simply shoddy craftsmanship, a product of neglect in many ways.
The main problem here is that, on the whole, the album lacks shape. Levesque and Harney sound tired, and most of the tunes possess a lethargy that is downright tiring to withstand. Levesque sings with little regard to the beat, Harney drums with little regard for his singer (though you can’t really blame him), and the guitar work can be described—quite generously—as scattershot. Sure, this is all done in the name of “experimentation,” but that’s finally little more than a handy excuse here. “init .0005 (formerly, a case of…)”, for example, is intolerable in its lack of resemblance to anything approaching a song. Levesque creaks along out of key while an annoying hum trades barbs with a stabbing guitar. Perhaps the only song that’s more insufferable is An Exhausted Fever, which features rapidly-spoken verses that lead to—surprise—exhausted-sounding choruses. Damn, making art-rock must be downright taxing.
Alright, so this might be starting to sound harsh and outright cruel. You must, after all, respect what Wheat are trying to do. Sick of the suits and forced smiles and compromises that come along with the music business, they’re finally just making music that—for them—feels spontaneous, natural, and inspired. Something, however, gets lost in translation, and music that is recorded and released is ultimately made for a specific audience. And, if that audience can’t dig it, it just ain’t working. Pick just about any song here—“move=move”, “saint in law”, “to, as in addressing the grave”—and you’ve got little more than a little more than random noise occasionally colliding at intriguing moments. So, even if you respect Wheat’s mission here, you don’t have to like it.
Finally, Wheat are truly the art project they always claimed they wanted to be, but, alas, that’s not a good thing. Some of the songs here might even cause you to ponder just what exactly constitutes a song. Rhythm? At times there is little here. Melody? Scott Levesque’s voice sounds deliberately rough and off-key throughout most of the album. Beat? Sometimes you get one; often you don’t. Harmony? There are exasperated attempts. Structure? The entire album could use more. In the end, without Ricky Brennan’s guitar skills lending shape to the tracks here, the songs are as incomprehensible and meandering as the album’s title. As blasphemous as it is to say, here’s hoping Levesque and Harney move a little more towards mainstream tastes on their next album—if their project/band/whatever can survive such a seemingly slapdash effort.