[11 June 2009]
The music of Massachusetts outfit Wheat is swathed in the very texture of the substance from which the band takes its name: dry and earthy, evoking suggestive images of a sun-bleached, soft-focused haze. Think of their sound as the aural equivalent of something shot through the American pastoral lens of Terrance Malick or David Gordon Green, and suddenly it becomes unfortunate, but hardly surprising, that they remain one of the more unheralded late ‘90s post-Pavement indie-rock bands. Theirs is a sound that is free of the irony or pretense that too often marked the music of the era, elegiac and swaying, rather than ostentatiously perverse. If their small but steady output—four albums since 1998, with a new one slated for later this year—needs to fit any niche classification at all, call it postmodern Americana, the sound of country’s rural-musical traditions filtered through several iterations of cathartic American guitar rock.
It would be tremendously heartening to view The Rebel Group’s reissue of Medeiros and Hope and Adams, the band’s pair of albums from the twilight of the ‘90s, as a corrective measure to the attention and praise that eluded them at the time. Better yet, consider it an acknowledgement of how the band’s seamless weave of the conventional with the fringe unconsciously predicted the current decade’s embrace of what once was the underground as one more element in our vast-cultural fabric; consider it a spiritual precursor, of sorts, to everyone from the Strokes to Bright Eyes to Interpol to Death Cab for Cutie to the Shins to Sufjan Stevens to TV on the Radio and any other nominally independent act who managed to graze the mainstream in ways that they could not have managed a decade ago. More likely is this suggests an encouraging indication that a cult for these records (both had been out of print for a while) exists in some capacity—even in light of the band’s contentious later offerings. 2003’s Per Second, Per Second, Per Second ... Every Second was exactly the kind of major-label-aided bid for pop accessibility that reliably sheds fan bases, while 2007’s Everyday I Said a Prayer for Kathy and Made a One Inch Square was its stubbornly obtuse antithesis.
Medeiros is the only Wheat album to feature the original four-piece line-up of frontman Scott Levesque, guitarist Ricky Brennan, drummer Brendan Harney and soon-departed bassist Kenny Madaras, which might seem a bit strange, considering that it may be their quietest and is certainly their most uncluttered release sonically, at least until the splintered Everyday… (by which point Brennan’s exit had whittled the band down to a duo). With a pair of short, lovely and near-identical opening-and-closing instrumental chimes bookending the album, Medeiros only contains eight proper songs, yet the album is as perfectly metered as it is brief, a tonal masterpiece of wistful melancholy that never goes slack or lapses into indulgence. Guitars and drums remain at plodding half-speed throughout, only occasionally adopting a distorted indie rock buzz that comes most likely courtesy of the guiding hand of co-producers Dave Auchenbach and Brian Deck, the latter a veteran of another cultish and largely unclassifiable 90’s indie rock band only now getting a reissue-aided second-wave of attention, Red Red Meat.
The album’s true guiding light, however, is Levesque’s urgently melodic vocals, vaguely recalling a tempered mixture of Jeff Tweedy’s plainspoken clarity and Thom Yorke’s Bends-era melodramatic sweep. His ability to lapse into a subtle drawl on the muted drone of “Tubesoft” effectively highlights the song’s druggy, searching atmosphere, just as his distinctly wobbly sense of melody pushes the cinematic shimmer of “Death Car” towards a sprightly pop bounce. As willing as Levesque is to adapt to the sprung-rhthym lurches of “Karmic Episodes” or the meandering blur of “Working Man’s Manifesto”, though, he is most effective when the music is at it’s least complicated: “Leslie West” and, before it drifts off into an ethereal whine, “Soft Polluted Blacks” are almost folky in simplicity, while the six-minute plus album centerpiece “Summer” coasts gently from his yearning lyrical address to its slacker teenage protagonist in its first half to a languid instrumental anti-jam in its second. To count Medeiros as anything other than a band effort would be doing the other players an immense disservice to be sure, but for all of the album’s sonic consistency, Levesque’s most significant contribution here resides in his unifying coherence, coasting along with these compositions at their most dulcet and anchoring them at its most erratic.
Bravely eschewing the statement-of-intent-style nature of most debut records, Medeiros is far less concerned with grand statements and colorful flourishes than it is with delicately maintaining its own quietly established mood and current. Its lyrics are written in ellipses, and the album’s vague-narrative threads remain richly amorphous rather than poetically lazy or willfully evasive. Shards of romantic longing (“And it’s hard whispering out your name / And it’s good / But I think I kinda miss you just the same.”) mingle alongside inexplicably disturbing detail (“All the lights and smoke / All the mice and men / All her boyfriend’s coke starting to kick in.”) and reflective meta-observation (“Your song breaks my heart, my fear / Your rock and roll’s widowing me.”) in a haunting patchwork. In a year that found popular music reeling from the previous one’s cultural trojan horse off of O.K. Computer and making bold and original strides across a multitude of popular genres, 1998 saw In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Ray of Light, Mezzanine, Rufus Wainwright, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, XO, Music Has the Right to Children and Aquemini unveiled over a dizzying 12-month period. Medeiros is a worthy entry into that dynamic, forward-glancing lot. It is an album that wears its debts to history on its ragged sleeve while still being unidentifiably unique and modern, failing to show its 11-year age by never tangibly belonging to any era in particular. It is, in other words, a classic.
The following year’s Hope and Adams found the band making a few strides in terms of notoriety and production quality thanks to the work of Dave Fridmann, acclaimed for his production work with the Flaming Lips and former band Mercury Rev. Merging Wheat’s becalmed hum with Fridmann’s epic sweep could have easily resulted in a stylistic mess, but for as much as the producer’s work here goads the band into more expansive territory, it is never so ornate or so overwhelming as to swallow them whole. If Fridmann brings anything to the table at all, it is a freshly pristine clarity to the band’s lo-fi reticence. Just as the elusive murk of Medeiros was integral to that album’s carefully sustained atmosphere, though, the larger canvas Fridmann provides here ends up feeling like these songs’ natural setting.
Granted, enough of Hope and Adams is significantly more polished in ways that make the presence of professional tweaking obvious. “Slow Fade” is fragmented enough to suggest the impulsively offhand nature of its predecessor but, fleshed out just a bit and given a more professional vocal treatment than the warmly off-key twang Levesque lends it, it could have easily been a Gin Blossoms song. “Don’t I Hold You” gently shuffles like a chorus-less version of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon”, and though it was later re-recorded (in a version that strips the song of much of its amber glow) for their later major-label release, the song suffers from the attempt to lend it any further mainstream currency, as it proved unnecessary and infuriating (reiterating my love for Per Second, Per Second, Per Second…Every Second, I’ll admit that this was that album’s one severe misstep). “No One Ever Told Me” gets a little frayed and noisy near the end, while “Raised Ranch Revolution” flails into a fevered-guitar blur halfway though and then into a protracted outro in its last minute, but the front halves of each song are an easy midtempo rock song in the exact mode of countless adult alternative radio acts. “And Someone With Strengths” and “Body Talk, Part One” are both sleepy and a little vague, but no more than Wilco are at least half of the time. “Body Talk, Part Two”, complete with a well-placed and wholly reverent “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard” reference, is pure folk-pop free of any genre affectation at all.
If a good half of Hope and Adams comes off like a quaint indie band’s sudden reach for the stars, it also finds their idiosyncrasies completely unfettered just as often. The unsteady “San Diego” sputters and skips as if unable to fall into any groove at all, with an occasional mock orchestral backing that unsuccessfully tries to rouse it into action. “Be Brave” seems constructed almost entirely out of feedback, billowing and serene in its first half and then seething and punkish in the second. “Who’s the One” does a solid impression of a lovelorn slow dance, but Levesque’s vocals insistently float in and out of focus, keeping the song from ever becoming earthbound. The buzzing, percussive “Off the Pedestal” uncannily predicts Broken Social Scene at their most focused, while the chaotic and distorted “More Than You’ll Ever Know” instantly explodes into cacophony. The lovely finale, “Roll the Road” is awash in 70s-style keyboards and plays like the verses of Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” co-opted into a gentle lullaby.
And so, where the beauty of Medeiros resided in the band’s ability to maintain a single tone of withering melancholy for the whole of its running time, Hope and Adams, with its hopeful, open-hearted sprawl, is remarkable for just how consistent it remains over the course of an album constructed out of seemingly competing impulses. The trajectory traced over the course of Medeiros and Hope and Adams, complimentary albums entirely, suggests not an improvement or necessarily even an evolution but simply a widening of the palette. If you missed them the first time around (and odds are you did), The Rebel Group’s reissue is the perfect way to experience them now, nicely packaged in a digipack that retains the band’s minimalist aesthetic (free from any kind of extensive, retrospective-like liner notes) and conveniently side by side.
It is a bit of a downer, then, to have to end with a mention of the third disc in the package, an odds-and-ends assortment of demos and outtakes that are no doubt intended to entice the band’s followers for shelling out for the albums once more. Haphazardly structured like a radio program, or perhaps an A and B-side cassette tape, and titled 30 Minute Theatrik, the mix is annoyingly padded with an announcer’s intermission and a shard of studio chatter at the conclusion, likely included for the sole purpose of stretching the track listing out to an album-like ten in order to justify a full extra disc. It is possible that the thing might not feel like such a waste were any of the actual songs worth excavating from the archives, but aside from a few moments that demonstrate the potential to have developed into something worthwhile at some point (most notably the characteristically downcast acoustic ballad “New Boyfriend”), the bulk of what is here might be worth one curious listen solely for longtime fans. Perhaps the only thing of value demonstrated by these largely shapeless compositions, though, is just how meticulous the band, even at their most opaque, is in their crafting when it counts. But for infinitely better and more-convincing proof of that, why not just listen to the albums?