Mercurial, oddly lovable indie underdogs return, striking a balance between their pop leanings and their self-sabotaging sides.
Those who know Wheat’s 2003 major label debut Per Second, Per Second, Per Second… Every Second tend to divide sharply into two mutually exclusive camps. There are those of us who think the album is the peak of the mercurial, oddly lovable indie underdogs’ career to date, a surprisingly glossy effort that found room for Wheat’s sincerity and optimism in a set of actual pop songs that go for the throat the way nothing else in their discography does. And then there are those, the band among them, who felt that the record was a misfire; the gloss and directness was imposed from outside, and when Scott Levesque and Brendan Harney (who essentially are Wheat at this point) talk about it now, you can tell they feel a bit betrayed.
Your opinion on the album is likely based on whether you think a label pushing for something that’s more obvious, catchier, and more populist from a band is ever a good idea. Levesque and Harney are guys who love to tinker and patch things together and go in odd little directions, sometimes to the extent (as on the sort of petulant-feeling follow up Everyday I Said a Prayer for Kathy and Made a One Inch Square) of self-sabotage. Personally, I think Wheat are the kind of band who benefit from occasionally having to work inside the restrictions of the pop-song form, and I think Per Second is better than any album that, say, Fountains of Wayne has put together. But Levesque and Harney disliked the experience enough that White Ink, Black Ink is a totally self-directed affair (as all Wheat albums are likely to be from now on), and those who found their first two albums a bit low impact and their last one too obtuse for its own good will rightly approach with trepidation.
The good news, then, is that Levesque and Harney seem to have accepted that what they do best are pop songs -- if a particularly indie strain of pop song. Nothing here feels as willfully self-negating as parts of Everyday I Said a Prayer… did, and Wheat seem to have finally made peace between their pop leanings and their love of odd cul de sacs and diversions. The first two songs here are practically a flashback to Per Second: “H.O.T.T.” and “Changes Is” both show off the band’s facility with the studio and knack for rhythmically interesting, lush songs with ecstatic choruses, particularly the latter and its embrace of “getting outta here”. “H.O.T.T.” manages to be maybe the quintessential Wheat song, just by virtue of its subject matter, that odd sensation you sometimes get of feeling both on top of things and in way over your head, of being “shiny and new” and yet “broken cracked peeling and weathered”. It’s sardonic but sympathetic, sincere but wry, and much of White Ink, Black Ink follows suit.
Like most of the band’s albums, these songs are more about a worldview than anything more concrete; Levesque sings about being “El Sincero” and about “Living 2 Die vs. Dying 2 Live” like a man who’s found his place in the universe and wants to help you do the same thing, and that’s the heartwarming thing about the band. Unfortunately for much of the middle section of White Ink, Black Ink, the hooks aren’t quite what they could be. “Music Is Drugs” and "My Warning Song” in particular dead-end into repeated refrains that aren’t, on their own, as compelling as Wheat seem to think they are. And while Harney has always been a crucial part of the band, hearing him take center stage for a song like “Mountains” just reinforces how much his game but undistinguished singing voice lacks compares to Levesque’s more flexible and affecting one.
Those aren’t bad songs, but you have a lot less room for decent but unexciting filler when your album is only 33 minutes, and Wheat have just a little too much here for White Ink, Black Ink to be a real triumph. But when you get to the humming, clattering, euphoric “I Want Less”, with Levesque giving full-throated expression to the idea that “one love is better than a million bucks”, it seems more important that Wheat are one of the few bands around who can make that sound like wisdom rather than cliché. The band have been saying in interviews that they had to make the last album in order to have such a good time making this one, and the result is joyous enough that you can only hope Levesque and Harney will strike while the iron is hot this time and make an album that seizes on the potential this one displays.