TAILGATE BIRTHDAY SONGS: Wheat’s Raised Ranch Revolution Returns

WHEAT, WAITING: Scott Levesque and Brendan Harney realize that what Tom Petty said was true.

WHEAT, WAITING: Scott Levesque and Brendan Harney realize that what Tom Petty said was true.

HEADPHONE HEADS:  The Goldfinger side effect you can expect from listening to Wheat's gold soundz.

HEADPHONE HEADS: The Goldfinger side effect you can expect from listening to Wheat’s gold soundz.

 

“And suddenly after all this time, of waiting and wondering when and if they would return with their soft sparkle and gentle glamour intact, Wheat are back among us.”

It is with much fuzzy-hearted happiness, optimism and okay, maybe even a dash of nostalgia, that I can report the following about one of my all-time favorite Boston (well, technically, Taunton) bands: That opening sentence (and sentiment) of the music feature I wrote more than a decade ago for The Boston Globe still stands. Of course, it’s now been a bit longer than four years since we heard from Wheat in any sustained sonic way.

But in a sense, it’s difficult to tell if this most shadowy of Boston bands ever really, truly went away. The crooked corners and astral plane in-betweens, after all, is where they’ve always conjured and cast their best, slanted melodies and mysterious magical spells.

Unlike most of the local bands who threw in their lot together, started gigging out as often as possible, and relentlessly worked to promote themselves and build an audience (all noble and usually necessary pursuits, by the way), Wheat seemed to materialize and coalesce like a gathering vapor cloud, out of thin air.

They tended to revolve around a core of three: singer-songwriter Scott Levesque, guitarist Ricky Brennan, and drummer Brendan Harney, with an array of bass-playing satellites orbiting and inhabiting their universe. Every so often, a dream-like stunner like “Medeiros”  (their first album) or “Hope and Adams” (their second)  would emerge from this alchemy, only to eventually recede once again into an ether haze. A slow fade in. A slow fade out.

NONE WHEAT-IER:  Who the hell are these guys? The cover of "Medeiros," a mystery wrapped in a riddle.

NONE WHEAT-IER: Who the hell are these guys? The cover of “Medeiros,” a mystery wrapped in a riddle.

Wheat was my favorite band in Boston during the years their music and those albums (1997-1999, respectively) floated through the air liked golden-gilded butterflies, but with batwings (all the better for low-flying, under-the-radar stealth). One year, while freelancing for CMJ New Music magazine, I attended the well-known conference of the same name, a weekend music blowout held annually in New York City. On the itinerary, I had hundreds of new and potentially exciting, inspiring bands to choose from to check out, see and hear. The first night, I chose Wheat. Once more, I just couldn’t resist their allure. 

The arc of Wheat’s story — or, at least my version of their story, which they’ve helped tell in my interviews with them over the years — follows below, so I won’t get into it here. And, as you’ll read below, I’ve always believed that all music is local; that it all comes from somewhere, takes root (or flight), and if good or lucky enough, has the power to transcend geography.

MAKING MEDEIROS: A rare glimpse of Wheat at work, half-lit like their music, in the  shadows, circa '96

MAKING MEDEIROS: A rare glimpse of Wheat at work, half-lit like their music, in the shadows, circa ’96

Whether from Taunton or Transylvania, Wheat (and especially those first two majestic albums) should absolutely be heard by anybody who cares about seeking out music that hasn’t been built from a cynical formula, produced on a soulless assembly line, and hyped like (or from) a homogenous “talent” show or the latest smartphone.

Suffice it to say that I still listen to Wheat’s music, still cherish their records, and still treasure the very idea of them, wrapped in their cocoon of mystery. This Saturday evening, they will break free of that cocoon and once more take flight. How far and how long they’ll choose to hover or soar this time is anybody’s guess. But for now, they’re playing Great Scott in Allston (http://www.greatscottboston.com/), plugging into the kind of intimate room that always makes their music sound like a special secret. After all this time I,  for one, am ready for them to lean in and whisper (or, if they so wish, joyfully scream) it my ear again. Aren’t you? 

INDIE-ROCK TAPESTRY: The cover of  '99's "Hope and Adams," perhaps Wheat's fine-fabric masterstroke.

INDIE-ROCK TAPESTRY: The cover of ’99’s “Hope and Adams,” perhaps Wheat’s fine-fabric masterstroke.

AFTER FOUR YEARS, A NEW CROP OF WHEAT (Originally published in The Boston Globe, October 31, 2003)

And suddenly after all this time, of waiting and wondering when and if they would return with their soft sparkle and gentle glamour intact, Wheat are back among us. It’s been four years since the Boston-based trio released “Hope and Adams” on the tiny Chicago label, Sugar Free, and even longer since the band’s wondrously cryptic 1997 debut, “Medeiros”, bestowed instant indie-rock mystique on three camera shy guys from Taunton.

Four years is an eternity in pop music. Trends come, bands go, styles and genres are ascribed up-to-the-minute relevance one moment and discarded as outdated, junk culture ephemera the next. For the artists who reside inside this rarified but merciless realm, the prospects for success and longevity depends on any number of variables – dumb luck, business savvy, unswerving determination, or undeniable talent.

That Wheat – singer-guitarist Scott Levesque; drummer Brendan Harney; guitarist Ricky Brennan – have the latter two qualities in abundance is beyond dispute. That the group have, until recently, had precious little luck or good fortune when it comes to the business end of things is also beyond debate.

“I think Radiohead’s had four records out since ‘Hope and Adams’ came out,” says Harney with a cheerful laugh. “And they’re good records.” Wheat’s third album and major label debut, “Per Second, Per Second, Per Second … Every Second” (out this Tuesday on Aware/Columbia) was originally supposed to have been released two years ago on another label, albeit in a different version. But this being the music industry, where last-minute delays, zero-hour corporate mergers, and fickle public tastes can make or break careers faster than you can say Mariah Carey, trouble found Wheat in the form of a derailed distribution deal involving their would-be label, Nude. Extricating themselves from the ensuing legal entanglements took more than a year.

“We were in that weird limbo and we said, ‘we can either break up or we can write more songs’,” says singer-guitarist Scott Levesque, seated across from Harney over an afternoon pot of Turkish coffee at a Cambridge restaurant. “So we wrote another 20 songs.” Harney, who met Levesque in the mid-90’s at UMASS-Dartmouth, says the band wasn’t about to let a label snafu snuff out its creative spark. “It was either work or not do it anymore, and we weren’t willing to drop it or break up,” Harney says. “So we just buckled down and we had no clue as to where we were going to go.”

Where Wheat went was back to the recording studio, where they began working on new material with “Hope and Adams” producer Dave Fridmann, who’s also helped sculpt and tweak ambitious albums by the Flaming Lips as well as that of his own band, Mercury Rev. The first song the band came up with during this period of gloomy uncertainty was, remarkably enough, a charmingly upbeat composition called “I Met A Girl.” The tune found its way to the ears of Steve Smith, a vice president of A&R for Aware Records whose parent label, Columbia, had major distribution muscle. Smith happened to be a huge fan of the band and was one of the few folks in possession of the first, never-released version of “Per Second.”

” ‘Medeiros’ and ‘Hope and Adams’ are two of my favorite records of all time,” says Smith over the phone from New York City. When a third album didn’t materialize, he wondered “whatever happened to Wheat?” He found out the band was signed to Nude, heard an advance copy of the unreleased version of “Per Second”, and “also fell in love with that record.” He remembers wishing he could sign them right then and there. “I was bummed because I couldn’t do anything because they already had a deal,” Smith recalls. Eventually, Wheat’s free agency was the window of opportunity he was looking for. He persuaded his bosses at Aware/Columbia to give the band a shot.

“We are very, very excited about this record,” Smith says. “There are high expectations but the great thing is, they’re not instant expectations. We’re going to let things happen slowly and naturally.” First up for Wheat, says Smith, is a string of tour dates opening for Liz Phair, where people will be afforded the opportunity to experience the group close-up. Plans are also in the works to re-release Wheat’s first two albums at some point, he says.

Levesque and Harney claim that Aware liked the initial version of “Per Second” more than they did. It was solely the band’s decision, they say, to revisit and re-tool the disc by scrapping several of the finished tracks and replacing them with reworked arrangements or new compositions entirely. The result? A brightly burnished, scrupulously honed collection of clever, thoughtful pop songs – ear candy gilded with luscious hooks but smarts too, and primed for modern rock radio.

Although intricately layered soft bulletins such as “Go Get The Cops” and the prismatic pop exposition “Closer To Mercury” are lavish, atmospheric reminders of what made Wheat so special in the first place, taken as a whole, “Per Second” is a bold step away from the drowsy lo-fi languor and spangled haze that free-floated through the band’s previous work.

“For good or bad, we will never make the same record twice,” says Harney. “You always risk alienating folks but the only way for the band to make it interesting is to make it a journey. And I don’t think we could make the same record again. People over-romanticize (‘Medeiros’), and it was made seven years ago. I don’t have that love affair with that record. I never put it on. I really like this record a lot – it’s my favorite Wheat record – because we learned so much making it.”

Levesque says that recently, “somebody said to us, ‘oh, you’re doing a real pop thing now’. And for me, I think we were *always* doing a pop thing. But I hope I’m not such a one-dimensional person that I can’t make different kinds of records. I hope I progress. But you know, you can’t worry about that stuff. I feel this album was more indicative of who we are now.”

See my originally published piece online at The Boston Globe here: http://www.boston.com/news/globe/living/articles/2003/10/31/after_four_years_a_new_crop_of_wheat/

STOP AND SMELL THE WHEAT: Brendan Harney, Ricky Brennan, and Scott Levesque, 2003.

STOP AND SMELL THE WHEAT: Brendan Harney, Ricky Brennan, and Scott Levesque, 2003.

PLAYING SONGS: Wheat “Live and On Record” (originally published in The Boston Phoenix, March 16-23, 2000 issue) 

The closest Wheat got to properly introducing themselves at their headlining show upstairs at the Middle East Friday was singer-guitarist Scott Levesque’s confession to the crowd. “I spend a lot of the day worrying about not being entertaining — it’s a big problem with me,” Levesque said, grinning impishly. “So if you’ll bear with me, we’ll just keep playing songs.” The absurdity of Levesque’s remark, however self-deprecating, was obvious to everyone in the room. The sold-out show was packed for one thing, and Wheat had already dazzled the audience by opening their 60-minute set with a clutch of jewels mined from their most recent album, *Hope and Adams* (Sugar Free).

Though the band failed to mention either that disc or the one that preceded it, 1997’s *Medeiros*, by name, the dozen songs drawn from those records spoke eloquently for themselves — as did new (also unintroduced) bassist Bob Melanson, who joined up with Levesque, guitarist Ricky Brennan and drummer Brendan Harney in January but sounded as if he had played with them his whole life.

With a European tour scheduled for April, the enigmatic group’s mysterious ways and camera-shy days are likely coming to an end. After all, you can’t sound this sublime and stay anonymous forever. Wheat’s power to enthrall was put on lustrous display from the first languid wash of notes that opened “Raised Ranch Revolution”, a stunning number given a long, even more stunning coda that showcased the luxuriant instrumental interplay between Levesque’s and Brennan’s guitars (a recurring highlight that climaxed with the cresting, beautiful collision that decimated the finale, “Who’s The One”).

The new songs — “San Diego”; “No One Ever Told Me”; “Slow Fade” — unfurled one after the other with graceful, hazy splendor, and it was telling that the band didn’t feel the compulsion to deliver their first indie underground “hit”, “Death Car”, until somewhere around the set’s mid-way mark. Meanwhile, other older material like “Summer” — a lyrical love-letter to adolescence set to loping, Pavement-esque guitars — hung with a heavy, indolent air: “Smoking pot with your train-track friends,” Levesque sang with Malkmusian detachment. “Close your eyes and let the music carry you, like some tailgate birthday song.”

And so it did. There was wonder and joy and discovery inside this music, and an outwardly humble yet supremely confident band at the helm of it all. Just, as Levesque had said earlier, “playing songs”. And discovering them, too.

Jonathan Perry

See the online version of my original piece as published here: http://www.bostonphoenix.com/archive/music/00/03/16/REX/WHEAT.html

CASUAL COOL: Ricky, Brendan, and Scott ready for their close-up

CASUAL COOL: Ricky, Brendan, and Scott ready for their close-up

WHEAT FROM THE CHAFF (Originally Published in Stuff@Night, October 12-25, 1999 issue)

Wheat have always been a curiously reclusive band. Sure, the Massachusetts-based group’s only been around for a couple of years (so their history doesn’t date back, like, decades), but wouldn’t that make it more likely for them to play out every chance they got and get, y’know, established or something, instead of quietly recording little masterpieces in their bedrooms and releasing them on a tiny Chicago label called Sugar Free?

This much we know: Wheat make some of the most sublime pop music you’re likely to hear anywhere, and they’ve just released Hope and Adams, one of the most sublime albums you’re likely to hear anywhere — local or no. Their names are Scott Levesque, Brendan Harney, and Ricky Brennan, but don’t bother trying to find out who played what on their new album. They aren’t listed anywhere (their names weren’t listed anywhere on their first album, Medeiros, either). You can, however, see and hear them in the flesh when they make a rare appearance at T.T. the Bear’s Oct. 16 opening for Mike Watt & The Pair of Pliers (Cobra Verde and Nod are also on the bill).

“I just think that, initially, there was nothing to say,” says singer Scott Levesque, explaining the band’s early pact never to do interviews or offer clues about its identity. “The thing is, we weren’t trying to be anonymous or anything — we were anonymous. And we hadn’t done anything up to that point. Now (interviews) make more sense, with us putting our second album out. But back then (1997) we had one album out and we felt like, who cares about who we are and what we have to say?”

Plenty of people, as it turned out. When Levesque and Harney, who studied art together at UMass-Dartmouth, formed Wheat with Brennan and quietly dropped a debut as alluring as it was unassuming, taste-making music publications like CMJ and Melody Maker started scrambling to find out just who was behind he music. Favorable (and deserved) comparisons to Pavement, Sparklehorse, and Creeper Lagoon ensued. “I’ve worked in record stores, and you become obsessed with all that stuff,” Levesque says. “And Pavement, of course, is just an amazing, amazing band.”

Like the group to whom they’ve been most often compared, Wheat’s slanted and enchanted pop soundscapes glow with the lingering warmth of vintage rock. At one point on *Hope and Adams* they name-check Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl,” and “Roll The Road” is such a close cousin of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” that Wheat could get arrested for incest. Let’s just hope Tom’s not a litigious fellow. “Well, we don’t have any money anyway,” Levesque says with a laugh, referring to the band’s “homage.” “We felt like it was the next best thing to just playing the song.”

The nod to Petty aside, Wheat don’t need anybody’s help in the writing department. Hope and Adams, which was co-produced by Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips), is incandescent and mesmerizing. It’s an album whose songs sound and feel like an inviting undertow — the tide pulls you in closer and gently, inexorably, sweeps you away. What the album means as a whole, says Levesque, is up to each listener. “I think it’s nice to get a record and not have too much of any one thing already attached to it,” he says. “It’s like hearing a song before you see the video. This way, you can create your own band in your head, and that’s the cool thing. It’s a strange thing — but it’s a cool thing.”

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION: The cinematic songsmiths either in an action shot or making a guest cameo on "Cop Rock."

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION: The cinematic songsmiths either in an action shot or making a guest cameo on “Cop Rock.”

Check out Wheat’s “Don’t I Hold You” from their ’99 album, “Hope and Adams” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrmTRwaHN4M

Check out “Raised Ranch Revolution,” also from “Hope and Adams,” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8FxVepXVuU&list=PLD9AE6EB9DD17225A

Check out “Summer,” maybe the best song Pavement never wrote, from Wheat’s debut album, “Medeiros,” herehttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8dEURoY-uo

Here’s a BRAND NEW Wheat track (big thanks to the band for hitting us with this tune!) “House Of Kiss” right here, kids: Wheat_01v1_HouseOfKiss

Wheat’s Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Wheat/10605351939

Finally, check out all the fine Wheat videos and music you could want at their own You Tube channel right here (and don’t forget to pick up the actual albums, yo!): http://www.youtube.com/user/wheatmusic

 

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