Per Second, Per Second, Per Second … Every Second (Aware/Columbia), the 2003 album by Boston-area band Wheat, is the best album of the decade.
Now you know.
To be fair, I haven’t listened to every album released between January 1, 2000, and today. I’m not a professional music writer or critic. And I’m not an audio omnivore whose ears digest everything they come across, although in the past ten years, the vaguely named decade some call “the aughts,” it’s become easy for anyone with access to the Internet to consume, without necessarily paying for, more music than ever before.
“File sharing” by way of programs like Napster was still in its infancy in January 2000; the record industry had no need to panic yet. But one year later Apple’s iTunes software had arrived, and soon the company’s iPods were irrevocably changing people’s listening habits. Then CD sales plummeted, and blogs giving away free music (entire albums — entire discographies, even!) multiplied, and record stores disappeared at an alarming rate, and now, ten years later, the industry has many reasons to be worried.
Yet there’s still great music being made, and there always will be. Despite the fact that I’m not an obsessive listener, I am always on the lookout for the Next Great Song, because like any other music fan, I want words and music (but not necessarily in that order) to enter my brain and refuse to leave, and then I want my brain to ask, “Is there more where that came from?”
In the case of Wheat, the Next Great Song was “Closer to Mercury,” which I first heard in 2006 on Jefitoblog. It opens with a staccato piano rhythm and the lyrics “And I would’ve walked behind / And I would’ve walked beside you / And I would’ve told you every lie / And I would’ve done that for you.” A pair of drum fills and a gently throbbing bass line then join the song underneath the lines “Open your eyes sometimes / It’s funny how I adore you / I’m gonna get every line just fine / I’ll even sing it for you now.”
Of all things, a cat’s meow comes next, and with that “Closer to Mercury” takes off at a steady gallop, incorporating a T. Rex-style guitar solo, group harmonies, unexpectedly plainspoken sentiments like “I would make coffee for you,” and this verse:
Summer love moves fast
You get a little slow and the fall moves past
But you’ll never find another love like my love
Winter slows the pace
Spring brings the summer back to your face
But you’ll never find another love like my love
After one listen I had goosebumps. It was my new favorite song. Who needs “growers”? Give me more of this.
Luckily, the album that contains “Closer to Mercury” didn’t disappoint. As Michael Azerrad, the author of Our Band Could Be Your Life, wrote in 2003, “If Medeiros  was like a grainy black-and-white photograph and Hope and Adams  was a subtle but momentous shift to muted hues, Wheat’s glorious major-label debut, Per Second, Per Second, Per Second … Every Second, is a giant leap into Technicolor.”
Right off the bat, six tracks achieve pop-radio perfection. Aside from “Closer to Mercury,” there’s album opener “I Met a Girl” — how many songs are honest enough to admit “I met a girl I’d like to know better / But I’m already with someone”? — plus “These Are Things,” “Some Days,” “Can’t Wash It Off,” and the hidden track “Don’t I Hold You,” an update of a fan favorite from Hope and Adams. And under the section of “Radio One” on Wheat’s website is “Focus,” which didn’t make the cut for Per Second, but if a deluxe edition of the album is ever produced, it deserves a bump up to bonus-track status — “Focus” is yet another wickedly catchy parallel-dimension radio smash from the band.
Unfortunately, Per Second never took off with the general public, selling less than 30,000 copies. It also alienated some fans who may have felt betrayed by Wheat’s move toward mainstream acceptance and away from the intimate “bedroom recording” vibe of their first two albums. But as U2’s Bono told The New York Times last March, “When you become a comfortable, reliable friend, I’m not sure that’s the place for rock ‘n’ roll,” and he defended his group’s major-label, world-conquering ambitions by saying, “The excuse for bigness is that songs demand to be heard if they’re any good.”
The songs on Per Second, Per Second, Per Second … Every Second are very good indeed. The album is an indie-pop Thriller, with each minutely crafted wall-of-sound wonder adding up to a full-length masterpiece about time, love, and memory, and how each one influences the others. (First and foremost, great albums can’t be assembled without great songs. Otherwise, who cares about overarching themes?) By the time lead singer and guitarist Scott Levesque checks off the four seasons in “Closer to Mercury,” Per Second has already provided soundtracks for each quarter of the year: the chill of a domestic squabble in “Go Get the Cops” and a failed relationship in “Breathe” (winter); the resolve of a new day in “The Beginner” and “These Are Things” (spring); the electrifying confusion of romance in “I Met a Girl” and “Can’t Wash It Off” (summer); and the strengthening of convictions as the days get shorter in “Life Still Applies” and “Hey, So Long (Ohio)” (fall).
Per Second is loaded with stream-of-consciousness pop-rock anthems that are never calculated, yet they’re full of details that reward repeated listens, like the guitar in “I Met a Girl” that sounds like it’s shorted out and can now do a spot-on impression of the Road Runner, the way “It’s never what you want to be somehow” in “Breathe” is answered by “Everyone gets what they want / Even me” in “The Beginner,” and lots of falsetto oohs and woos and hoo-hoo-hoooooos sung passionately by Levesque, drummer Brendan Harney, and guitarist Ricky Brennan. (Great albums should also have a high sing-along quotient.) Per Second even climaxes with a reference to the end of the Beatles’ best album, Abbey Road: in “This Rough Magic” Levesque sings, “I hope God will mend / The little things I break and bend / And equal it to the love I made.”
Because there’s such an abundance of music these days in the average listener’s life, it’s easier than ever for albums, whether new or old, to go in one ear and out the other. But for the past three years I’ve listened to Per Second again and again from start to finish — the sequencing is flawless, especially the way the one-two rev-up climax of “Can’t Wash It Off” and “Closer to Mercury” leads into the quiet optimism of “This Rough Magic” — which is really saying something in the era of iPod “shuffle mode” dominance.
As I get older and my tastes in music shift back and forth, I try to resist the temptation to think, They don’t make ’em like they used to. My five-year-old niece thinks Miley Cyrus is the best thing ever, and you know what? She’s right. When I was five I loved Joey Scarbury’s theme song to The Greatest American Hero, and you know what else? I was right. I’m still right!
The truth is that as we get older we idealize pop music all out of whack, forgetting that the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems. Somehow, though, Per Second, Per Second, Per Second … Every Second lives up to that graying ideal. To paraphrase Neko Case, I held out for that teenage feeling, and it paid off in ways I never imagined. Or, to put it another way, when novelist and screenwriter William Goldman speculated about the 1994 Oscar race in Premiere magazine he wrote, “I am voting for The Shawshank Redemption [for Best Picture] because — and I am speaking here as an intellectual writing for an intellectual magazine — it moved the shit out of me.” A gazillion albums were released this decade, but for me, only one gets a nod of approval like that one.
Per Second took an unusual path on its way to CD racks. Originally recorded for London-based Nude Records, it was rerecorded for Aware Records two years later; producer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, MGMT), who also manned the boards for Hope and Adams, headed up both versions, though John Fields (Rooney, Jimmy Eat World, Jonas Brothers) is credited with production on “Closer to Mercury” and “Breathe” on the final product. The bootlegged Nude versions of the songs do sound rawer and are therefore more “indie,” it can be argued, but most of the hooks are already in place and ready to explode. (Think of the Nude version of Per Second as Kinemacolor to the Aware Per Second‘s Technicolor.)
Levesque and Harney distanced themselves from the album (Brennan left in 2004 to pursue other projects) in the press release for their follow-up, 2007’s Everyday I Said a Prayer for Kathy and Made a One Inch Square — “It had been remixed and in places re-recorded, largely at the label’s behest, and was consequently rendered lifeless” — but since then they’ve changed their tune. The push-pull between those who create music and those who bankroll that creativity can often create headaches — Aware rejected Wheat’s choice for the cover art of Per Second, for instance — but it can also produce awe-inspiring results, and as Wheat knows full well, time affects memories, sometimes even healing the bad ones. As Levesque says in “Life Still Applies,” “You can part with your discontent / You can turn it around.”
Recently, Levesque (left) and Harney (right) agreed to an e-mail interview about their experiences making Per Second at the beginning of the decade.
When did you start writing the songs for Per Second?
Scott Levesque: Pretty soon after Hope and Adams. It’s always a continuous collecting of things.
Brendan Harney: Yeah. You know, like Scott said, we’re pretty much always writing and such. In fact, I remember playing an early version of “Can’t Wash It Off” at our first-ever show in London. And that was like in 1998!
When was the original version of Per Second recorded, and how long after that did Wheat sign with Nude Records?
SL: The record was finished before we met with Saul Galpern [owner of Nude] in Boston. Dave Fridmann’s manager actually worked for Nude in some fashion, so it was done when we actually signed. We did, like, half with Dave and half with Brian Deck, recorded mostly all with [engineer] Dave Auchenbach.
BH: Because our manager, Scott Booker, was in so tight with Dave Fridmann — he also records all of the Flaming Lips’ stuff — we were able to kinda go in there without money or a label and record (knowing of course that we’d get back to him with the bread when we signed with someone). We started working on what was to become Per Second while we were still touring for Hope and Adams. With Dave Auchenbach, who did all of the basic tracks for the original version, we’d kinda just go into his studio whenever we had time in 2000 and hang out, record, drink coffee. Yeah, and then the Nude thing came along, and at the time it was the best route for us. Good guy.
I read in Magnet magazine a couple years ago that the band purposely wanted a bigger sound for Per Second compared to the first two albums. I can definitely hear a difference — how did you go about achieving that?
SL: We always try to expand or add, track new things each record. I guess we just continued to deconstruct what people, including ourselves, expected from Wheat. [By that] I mean getting lost, slightly uncomfortable, like asking “Can we go there?” etc.
BH: Right. The “bigger” sound was more about wanting to see how far we could take the thing that we did and still have it feel like Wheat, still have charm. Also, because we had the budget, we could really spend time spit-shining pretty much everything we wanted to.
What was Nude’s response to the original version of Per Second?
SL: Loved it. They, at every point, seemed way psyched. City Slang [a label in Berlin] also was into releasing it.
BH: They loved it, which is why they wanted to sign us up, but I do remember Saul wondering if the album title was too long. And of course we were like, “No way, man, it’s perfect — can’t touch it!”
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Was “I Met a Girl” finished before you signed with Aware Records in the spring of ’02?
SL: Yeah, it was right after we finished the original Per Second, [while] we were caught in our two-year legal limbo when Nude folded.
BH: That was the song that got us signed to Aware, in fact. Gregg [Latterman], the president of Aware, heard that song and pretty much decided to sign us based on that. Never saw us live, never heard the other material until it was done!
Was it ever intended as a stand-alone single until you could get the Nude version of Per Second out of legal limbo?
BH: No, it was just kinda the first song in a new batch of music that we were really enthused about recording. So when we had a few days at Dave Fridmann’s, we just went for it.
How much input did Sugar Free Records have on Medeiros and Hope and Adams?
SL: Nothing, songwise, though I recall a screaming match betwixt [Sugar Free cofounder] David Simkins and I over the song sequence. What a great, passionate guy he is. Top shelf all the way.
BH: Right. No input whatsoever. So we kinda got used to operating that way, and definitely felt wrangled when suggestions from label folk came along.
On the website of the Canadian music magazine Exclaim! there’s a quote from Scott from 2003: “Sometimes [Fridmann would] say, ‘This vocal is too high, it’s Britney Spears territory,’ or wonder what the hell we were doing, but that sort of conflict is what forms the final product.” How would you describe your relationship with Fridmann on Hope and Adams and Per Second, the two albums he produced?
SL: Another top-shelf guy. Totally grounded with his head in the clouds, but in secret! Really chill. He’s a total kooky-head. Everyone you work with seems to influence the music. I think he liked the challenge — he really invested. Sang a bit on [Hope and Adams‘s] “Raised Ranch Revolution,” played bass on “I Met a Girl.” Love and truly respect him.
BH: You know, we only ever worked with people we respected in terms of their work and [who we] like personally. Those kinds of funny things came up with everyone we worked with, but probably more so with Dave Fridmann, ’cause when we worked with him we were usually at the point of really getting it all pulled together. Final-decision time.
What do you feel are the ideal roles of a producer and a record label?
SL: A producer joins the band for a bit, I think. In all aspects — he can arrange, play, sing, record, mix. A record label moves units, hires press, [coordinates] radio — kind of a general contractor.
BH: Exactly that. Some producers in music kinda “take over” the project, lay down the law, etc., but we’ve never gone for that shit. And fortunately, everyone that we’ve worked with has respected what we do, and even when they didn’t get it, understood that we at least didn’t just pull it out of our asses.
Was part of the appeal of signing with Aware/Columbia that they could get your music to listeners in “real time,” as Scott said in the interview last summer with Pedro Esteves on the Portuguese radio show Lado B? In other words, you wouldn’t have to wait for your new album to be discovered a year or two later through word of mouth?
SL: I think it was a cool challenge for us. I mean, totally weird and out of context from where we would have imagined ourselves. “Just crazy enough to work, maybe,” but sure, Columbia is a big label. The Aware guys are great guys. Steve Smith, our A&R at that point, really sold us to everyone. He’s a good guy. It was like my ten-year-old boyhood rock ‘n’ roll fantasy to see a Columbia logo on my record, like all the Bob Dylan and Miles records I grew up listening to.
BH: We thought, “Hell, if we can keep doing things our way, and they throw some money and effort around, why not?!” And it certainly was awesome to have a literal team of people working on our behalf — pushing songs, setting up opportunities, etc.
There’s been a lot written about the rerecording of Per Second once the group signed with Aware: they requested it, you wanted to do it, you didn’t want to do it, and so on. How did it transpire in the first place? What did you think of the process?
SL: It’s fine. It was a challenging record for us to make in terms of the playing, the sounds, and the company. It was the first record with outside influence, meaning A&R around during tracking, talking a bit about lyrics, etc. It was weird and stressful for me, sure, but I like work and challenge. I go crazy with the same thing over and over again.
BH: It was the first record where “the pressure was on,” meaning it was understood that it had to be the absolute best it could be. But we wanted that, anyway — we wanted to push it. We wanted to blow up any notions of what Wheat could or couldn’t be. Like Scott said, the A&R guy, Steve, was around a lot during the recording and mixing, but we grew to like him, and trust him also. He was a great sounding board in a way. And also, we could blame anything we didn’t like on him [laughs]. All in all, the process of recording was like we always did it — just building, tearing down, building again until we felt it was a good listen.
Was the two-year layoff between recording sessions a major factor for you in wanting to rerecord songs?
BH: Totally. You change so much as musicians and people in two years. The original versions felt, well, old. You can’t let writers just get a chance to rewrite or they will in fact rewrite, rerecord, etc. [laughs].
Brendan, when I talked to you in June in Chicago, you said that Per Second was “crafted like a motherfucker.” Do you consider that to be a good thing?
BH: In retrospect it was a good thing. Like I said earlier, everything — every track — was played to perfection (at least for us), and then cleaned up or edited if it wasn’t absolutely right. But mainly, from our end, we just worked and worked and worked on the arrangements, and on every little detail, so that there literally wasn’t a moment that would be just sorta there. No second of music was left that didn’t have a purpose. Even if we had a good song, we always would say, “Okay, where can this go from here? What can make this really come alive? What can we do that would be unexpected?”
How did John Fields become involved with the album?
SL: He was brought in by Steve from Aware to do a few things, “major [label]” it up a bit. Nothing bad intended by that, by the way — he’s a great, kooky, talented player. Played bass on “Closer to Mercury” and “Some Days.” It was a blast working with him — the opposite of Fridmann, really. Breakneck-speed tracking/mixing, whereas Fridmann is a bit more reserved and Zen at the board.
BH: Yeah, there were a few songs that just didn’t seem to jump in the right way, and so he came along and we busted ass together and made them great. Cool dude.
How did Glen Phillips and Andy Sturmer end up singing backing vocals on the album?
SL: Steve managed Glen, Andy was a friend of John’s. Plus, I liked me a Jellyfish song or two.
I noticed that on the Nude version of “Hey, So Long (Ohio),” Brendan is singing lead, but on the Aware version it’s Scott. What brought about that change?
SL: Bren getting scared [laughs]. Actually, just a decision — don’t really know who to blame or thank, really.
BH: I can’t remember, really. I like both versions equally, although the Aware version just sounds so rad!
Brendan, you said in June that it was the “presentation” of Per Second that left a bitter taste in your mouth. One of the things I like about Wheat is that you guys don’t come across as careerists — you’re “el sincero,” to borrow a title from your most recent album. Once Per Second came out, what was it about the presentation of the album and the band to the public that you guys didn’t like?
SL: I think “career” was suddenly weird. I remember a Terry Gross interview with the Beastie Boys saying how they actually became the drunk-jock fucks that they had contempt for. We sort of felt like we were becoming “the bumper sticker kids.” I don’t know — there is so much bullshit and bulls around at that level. It’s hard to know what to think.
BH: The presentation of the band seemed uncomfortable to us. We didn’t like “dressing up” to play shows or shopping for “cool” clothes or any of that. The music was rad, we were rad, and you can’t fuck with that, really. It got fucked with a bit, and the soup had a strange taste. And as a band, once you don’t believe in who you are 100 percent, you’re fucked, really.
How did your original plan for the album’s cover — a girl holding a match — tie in with your concept of Per Second‘s themes?
SL: I loved the “in the moment”-ness of her, like “Fuck all!” Here is now, and that’s all that matters.
BH: The original cover had that and some other imagery, and, as with all of our art, kinda doesn’t address the material directly, really. It kinda has a conversation with it. A parallel line, if you will.
You opened for Liz Phair on a leg of the Per Second tour. She was getting a fair amount of grief at that time for her self-titled album, on which she was accused of selling out to get some radio hits. When you recorded the holiday single “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with her in ’03, did you talk at all about fans’ and critics’ expectations and how to deal with them?
SL: I did at one point, and she just sort of missed it, I think. I too thought she might have had such feelings, but it might have been the wrong night [to ask]. I’m glad we did that song, and I asked her to sing — it’s a truly kicking version. John Fields kicked its ass.
Artists often talk about how difficult it is to separate a bad creative experience from the end product of that creativity, but in your songs, love and memory — and the way both can change over time — are major themes. Based on the interviews and articles I’ve read and heard, you seem more at peace with the album now than you did just two years ago. Is that true?
SL: Absolutely. It’s all a process. It was a strangely unique experience. There are always things that you would change about decisions you’ve made, but that goes for everything in your life. All of our records have issues, but I’m glad to keep moving and leave them behind.
BH: Everything seemed so big and absolute then, you know? Like, “Oh my god, this is everything!” And then you just get crazy and run for the hills — which is what we did, really. Left the whole thing. But now it’s just another record, where you’re trying to get the communication right, hit the sweet spot, touch a heart or two.
So you don’t still feel like the songs were “rendered lifeless,” per the press release for 2007’s Everyday I Said a Prayer for Kathy and Made a One Inch Square?
BH: Not at all. That was kind of a wounded animal lashing out ’cause it knows it’s hurt. I actually really dig the new versions of those songs. What I think we mostly feel about that time is our own sense of not being sure who we were. Those songs are pretty massive and fun, and yet still very Wheat. Some supersweet moments and interesting Wheat arrangements.
Are there any albums you’ve liked that you think succeeded both artistically and commercially? Were they in the back of your mind when you were writing and recording — and rerecording — Per Second?
BH: A shitload! I mean, so many have gotten that really right, from Springsteen to Modest Mouse to Stevie Wonder. And they’re all there in our minds when we work. We make our own little world happen when we’re recording, but still, you can’t dismiss the stuff that works, the stuff that’s lasted. That’s an oil field chock-full of oil!
How did the rerecorded, Per Second version of “Don’t I Hold You” end up on the soundtrack of Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown?
BH: They just came to us and were like, “We’d like to use this song, it fits perfect.” And we were like, “Well, hell yeah.” We had respect for the man’s work already, so it was a no-brainer.
On “Some Days” Scott sings, “And most days we don’t regret / And most words we say are true / It’s when we force each little step / When something, anything would do.” When I listened to this song again recently, I thought about the rerecording process for Aware. Too much of a stretch?
SL: Well, I’m always writing from life and not life. Art takes detours and goes off on tangents. It’s being able to get back on track, with all that being said, and still proving the point seamlessly that’s the magic. Relations are relations. There are only so many scenarios.
Are you Todd Rundgren fans? Something/Anything? is another album that blew me away when I first heard it. Seems like you share a similar artistic sensibility with Rundgren — musically speaking, he didn’t like to stay in the same place for very long.
SL: Yeah, we talked about TR more than once. Bren used that phrase a bunch. It was around, and really nailed our situation perfectly.
BH: He’s one of the greats in our book (for the reasons you say). And words, titles, phrases that we say and talk about are used in how we talk about what we talk about. To borrow another, it’s what we talk about when we talk about love.