A bumper harvest for Wheat

It's been a great year for American guitar rock, and an even better one for a band from Massachusetts.
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The Independent Culture

Whatever else happens in the next few months, one thing is clear: 1999 has been a renaissance year for American guitar rock, particularly the understated, lo-fi end of the genre. With Smog and Will Oldham both pushing their personal envelopes on this year's releases, East River Pipe producing the most enchanting record of the year in The Gasoline Age, and Pavement finally making an album that all their fans could play to their friends without undue embarrassment, the US indie underground is certainly in its healthiest state since the mid-Eighties heyday spearheaded by REM.

Whatever else happens in the next few months, one thing is clear: 1999 has been a renaissance year for American guitar rock, particularly the understated, lo-fi end of the genre. With Smog and Will Oldham both pushing their personal envelopes on this year's releases, East River Pipe producing the most enchanting record of the year in The Gasoline Age, and Pavement finally making an album that all their fans could play to their friends without undue embarrassment, the US indie underground is certainly in its healthiest state since the mid-Eighties heyday spearheaded by REM.

And just when you think it couldn't get any better, along come Taunton, Massachusetts' finest, Wheat, with the follow-up to their misty debut Medeiros, the brave, gentle Hope And Adams. As they say at the Ambassador's party: "Your Excellency, you are spoiling us!

Of the above bands, Wheat are perhaps the closest to early REM in both style and spirit - their tunes have the same kind of captivating simplicity, their guitar lines and vocal harmonies are just as meticulously natural, they have a healthy interest in pre-punk musical influences, and there's a similar air of outsider mystery about Scott Levesque's songs.

Tracing the parallels further still, the band was even formed by a couple of art students (singer/ gutarist Levesque and drummer Brendan Harney), ensuring that Wheat's sleeve designs possess a comparable cryptic beauty to REM's. The inaptly titled CD booklet "guide" to Medeiros, for instance, displays a list of 108 eight-digit numbers and a tube-line map on which the individual song titles feature as stations alongside apparently random household objects - tea-bag, television, shoe rack, shampoo etc.

"It puts music in its place in your life," explains second guitarist Ricky Brennan. "Think of your normal day: you go to work, come home, listen to a record, have dinner..." "It's meant to make you wonder," adds Harney. "It's nice to spend a little time wondering what it means. How about opening up a little bit of mystery?"

But not too much mystery: though the numbers remain unexplained, Levesque eventually lets slip that the map is actually an environment - "If you read the little tube map, it's a room" - but then immediately regrets his explanation.

"That spells it out a little too much," he realises, and similar queries as to their choice of band name and album titles are politely parried. I do, however, learn (with some relief) that their debut was not named after glutinous Eighties balladeer Glenn Medeiros, but reflects instead the substantial Portuguese community of Taunton, where it is a common surname.

"When you're with a group of friends, you don't have to say much after a while," Levesque explains. "Jokes can be triggered by just one word, and everyone bursts into laughter. It's like that with us: when we find something that really works for us, it just clicks, and we all have our reasons why. 'Medeiros' is just a really beautiful word." And so, of course, is Wheat. They are all equally circumspect about their music, as if explaining it too thoroughly might cause it to just disappear in a puff of smoke.

As their tube-map suggests, though, a sense of place is crucial to their music's development. "Taunton is one of those cities that's almost like suburbs, it's a beat or two behind London or New York," says Harney. "And that defines how we are - not that we're two beats behind, but we've always thought of our music as suburban, rather than urban." Now in their late 20s and early 30s, the band members had already tried rock'n'roll and given it up at least once by the time they formed Wheat. So when they started playing again, it was with a degree of caution.

"Barney and I had both hit a point where we were tired with music and bands in general," says Levesque. "We were just making art, making objects, and then we decided to start playing again. So we got a kit very cheaply from a thrift shop - 50 bucks for a kick drum and a ride cymbal! - and then we decided to form a band."

Having been in bands before, they had more of an idea of what they didn't want to play than what they did, and so with Ricky Brennan and Kenny Madaras (since replaced by Kevin Camara) completing the line-up, they set about developing their own sound, far removed from Taunton's prevailing rap-metal scene. "We played really quiet initially, in Scott's living-room," recalls Brennan, "with these tiny little amps, and barely hitting the drums - just trying to have some fun and make some noise, but quietly, trying to make something pretty."

Their promotional activities were, if anything, even more low-key, as for a long time they shunned live shows completely. "That old Husker Du/Black Flag thing of getting in the van and touring for nine months in the same pair of pants just didn't really seem relevant at the time," says Levesque. "When you're young, you really try, man - all that running around, mailing lists, handing out fliers, 'come see my band', all that. But we wanted none of that - no bumper-stickers, no T-shirts, no anything. We just wanted to play, and to write songs."

Initially, Levesque came up with the "skeletons" of the songs, though he admits that "the skeletons have become barer and barer as I've gone on, which allowed for more interaction on the second album. If it's just your concept, you can only go as far as you can imagine; with other people involved, things go in different directions." The result is a series of subtle, intelligent reflections on perplexing aspects of the modern condition - the difficulty of relationships, the insidiousness of TV, the balance between cruelty and compassion, and the problems of playing slow music in a high-speed age.

Reflecting the band's more mature attitude, several of the song skeletons echo an earlier generation of songwriting influences - a Tom Petty melody, a Jackson Browne delivery, a line from Paul Simon - though Levesque claims that Janet Jackson is just as important an element of their sound.

"There's a bit of everything in there. The main concept is not to alienate people. At certain points in time, revolution in music, a sort of forceful opposition, is effective, but not always. And while we want to bring about change, we're not interested in alienating people. Think of Dylan's songs - he wasn't smashing people over the head with a guitar, assaulting them with feedback, he was walking with people, and bringing about change in that way.

"Initially, people just want to shock, but that's ultimately infantile. To make a contemporary record, you have to consider what's been done, what's being done, and what you want to be done - put those three things together, and try to make yourself a relevant rock record."

The odds are that it'll come out sounding not too dissimilar to Hope And Adams.

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