Brandon Wiard: Painting a Burning Building

Kenneth Yu

Brandon Wiard's schizophrenic musical genius is given full range here, from glorious pop pastiche to trailblazing eclecticism.

Brandon Wiard

Painting a Burning Building

Label: Cerberus
US Release Date: 2004-08-10
UK Release Date: Available as import

A lot of the coverage of Brandon Wiard's music has used his surname -- which the press materials insist should be pronounced 'wired' -- as a springboard for analogies about how 'wired' his music is. Songs are said to be 'in the zone', hitting all the melodic sweet spots, breathing new life into the singer-songwriter and power-pop genres. At the risk of being unoriginal, I am going to do the same. I am going to compare Michigan-based Brandon Wiard to Wired magazine. Yes, that Wired.

If musical cliches are bits of code drawn from disparate computer languages, then Wiard is a hacker prodigy. He has mastered the art of pop in a rather clinical way, utilizing can't-miss hooks and other elements that recall the Beach Boys, Wilco and Elvis Costello. He has programmed them into this blissful album, his second release. Wiard takes elements as diverse as Brian Wilson harmonies and propulsive, anthemic '90s alt basslines, and he engineers them together to provoke the desired response -- a sense of familiarity-driven fulfillment, the joy of pop's pleasurable cliches.

"Already in Amazement" opens with white-boy vocal harmonizing that recalls the Beach Boys, inflecting it into a string of infectious power-pop hooks. Tracks like "Miss Michigan", "I Write This Songs" and "KMS" seem to belong to a '90s alt-power-pop band like Third Eye Blind or Gin Blossoms, manipulating the listener through the sheer catchiness of the melodies. Slower tracks like "Caroline" and "Since You've Gone Away" gleefully channel the spirit of Elvis Costello.

Based on the first nine tracks, Painting a Burning Building is an enjoyable romp, though nothing remotely life-changing. But the latter tracks -- kooky, unpredictable, trailblazing -- defeat expectations. Here Wiard is less a Warhol-like maker of pastiche than weird-nik visionary like Tom Waits or Mike Patton. The obvious computer-related analogies suggested by the earlier tracks -- "monopolizing good music, make mine Microsoft" -- no longer apply.

"The Old Heartless Sun" opens with hushed and syncopated beats. Mournful church organs enter, like a gentler, more comprehensible version of Radiohead's "Idioteque". Wiard turns over his singing to the pretty, lulling vocals of Kara Dupuy. Around the 2:00 mark, she stops singing: the song's gentle sympathy is scrapped in the face of nightmarish, blaring electronica. The song is invaded by Wiard's multiple counterpoint vocals, chanted like a mantra to invoke the mercy of the gods. Think "Pink Elephants on Parade" -- without the Disney sheen. Finally, the song segues into a sea shanty choir, ending with a call-and-response sequence in which Wiard's dueling lyrics evoke horrible shipwreck imagery.

The final two tracks, "Second Story" and "Seeing You in No Time", are mini-opuses, stream-of-consciousness suites that emerge from Wiard's fevered imagination. For almost twenty minutes, varied delights emerge like snippets of new tracks and deviant mutations of old ones. They are interspersed with eerie Mogwai-like soundscapes. Though not Tom Waits in form, these two tracks are certainly Tom Waits in substance: a primordial soup of alternative worlds channeled by a mind working outside standard music structures.

Painting a Burning Building may seem schizophrenic due its wildly differing portions -- pop genius in the first eight tracks, and potential trailblazer in the last three. Yet the album mirrors Brandon Wiard's artistic development: the dilemma of commercial success versus eccentric godhood.

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