“We’ve kinda found that people really dig one record of ours or another, and then kinda want that version of Wheat to be the one that they always get,” said Brendan Harney, one half of the Boston-area indie-pop band, in a recent interview for the website of Express, an offshoot of the Washington Post. “And that seems to leave a trail of disappointment here and there. We are a tough band to follow ’cause of the constant changing, but, you know, ‘Change is / The better part of me.'”
Harney was borrowing a couple lines from “Changes Is,” one of the highlights of Wheat’s latest album, White Ink, Black Ink (The Rebel Group): “Change is / The better part of me / Boom, boom / I’m getting out of here.” In that simple sing-along chorus, he and his partner, Scott Levesque, encapsulate all that is good about Wheat: a never-ending exploration of pop melodies backed by a propulsive rhythm that represents the heartbeat of their life-affirming music.
Like Radiohead or Wilco, Wheat switch gears with each album. “It’s not [about] being willfully obscure; it’s more about being very easily bored,” Harney told Express‘s Christopher Porter, “and never wanting to even come close to repeating ourselves. We really do love pop, but we really also do love strange and difficult beauty.”
But unlike Radiohead or Wilco, Wheat remain relatively obscure in terms of popularity, having recorded for four different labels over the course of five albums. And that’s a real shame, because their third LP, 2003’s Per Second, Per Second, Per Second … Every Second, is the best album of the decade. (That’s another discussion for another day, of course.) Wheat create soaring anthems big enough to fill stadiums. If only enough people were familiar with their work to fill those stadiums …
The experiments with sound, melody, and structure differ from album to album, but Levesque and Harney (they both sing, they both write, they both play whatever’s necessary, although Luke Hebert and Ray Jeffrey did help out with the instrumentation on White Ink, Black Ink) have remained focused on memory, time, love, and loss in their lyrics. Some songwriters might take the mournful route to express those themes, but Wheat produce songs like “Living 2 Die Vs. Dying 2 Live,” which builds upon echoing, multitracked vocals (“Never mind finality / I survive U survive me / ‘Cause some are living 2 die / While U and I, we’re dying 2 live”) and a cavernous John Bonham beat to reach a bridge that deserves its own confetti cannons.
It’s an explosive, euphoric moment. (Not for nothing does the album include another corker called “Music Is Drugs.”) Most bands would sell their souls for moments like that. Fortunately, Wheat have them in spades, possibly because, as a relatively obscure band, they actually get to experience a somewhat normal life and then celebrate it in song rather than experience it from a tour bus that never seems to make its way back home. Stadiums can wait.
Speaking of that big Bonham beat, it’s not always crowding the mix on White Ink, Black Ink, but Harney’s drumming is an essential part of the record, just as it was on Per Second and 2007’s Everyday I Said a Prayer for Kathy and Made a One Inch Square (specifically the closing stretch of that LP’s “Little White Dove”). In fact the same primal groove flows throughout the entire album, connecting the songs to each other, connecting the music to life, connecting life to the slow/fast march of time, connecting the listener to Wheat and vice versa, and onward and upward.
The “boom boom” beat hardens into “bap bap bap” drum-machine programming on “I Want Less,” another song that explains Wheat’s philosophy in 2009: “If it’s more you want, you’re out of luck / ‘Cause one love is better than a million bucks.” The only problem — and it’s a good problem — is that you are getting more from less on White Ink, Black Ink. In just 33 minutes Wheat crank out 11 tracks that add up to their most immediately rewarding work next to Per Second. (One drawback: like Phoenix’s recent release, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Wheat’s latest loses some steam in the final stretch once it begins to wear out its persistent groove.)
Copies of White Ink, Black Ink should be handed out at schools across the country. We can all learn something from Wheat: they champion honesty in “El Sincero,” devotion in “My Warning Song (Everything Is Gonna Be Alright),” and humility in “If Everything Falls Together” (“I hope that whether or not I get the point of it all … / Some of it all rushes over me”) and “H.O.T.T.” (“Half of the time I feel I’m clever / And half of the time I just haven’t a clue”). They’re not preaching to anyone here, but as on any good gospel record, there’s a whole lot of testifying. This is soul music.
Wheat may be trying to keep things simple — black and white, as it were — but in doing so, they’ve expanded their reach as songwriters. They know that nothing’s really black and white in this world, that life can change at a moment’s notice whether you’re the one causing the change or not, that death can lead to a life being truly lived, and that half of the time every single one of us hasn’t got a clue.
White Ink, Black Ink is available at Amazon.com.