Pop Live: Who needs stage-presence when the music's this good?

WHEAT ULU, LONDON

OVER THE past two years Wheat have found themselves likened, not entirely unreasonably, to REM. But while their songs have a similar explicitness and lead singer, Scott Levesque, undoubtedly has Michael Stipe's way with words, such a starry comparison is unlikely to go to their heads.

Indeed, in personality terms, the two bands are poles apart. Where REM thrive on live performances, in interviews Wheat have expressed a genial dislike of touring. They have long felt that the rigmarole of climbing in and out of tour buses and, worse still, the required promotional activities, are too far removed from the act of playing music and writing songs.

Suffice to say, Wheat take their music very seriously and such a conscientious approach is starkly reflected in their live performance. It will come as no surprise that, visually at least, they are almost entirely without charisma. They opt for a shuffling no-frills approach that incites more of a maternal cluck rather than an ecstatic yell. That's not to suggest that the band aren't enjoying themselves, though you get the feeling that our presence makes not a jot of difference. They stand in a circle for the most part as if having forgotten we are there at all.

But from this sphere of heightened concentration comes a delicately gorgeous sound, drenched in pastoral beauty. As they open with the undulating whisper of "Off the Pedestal" a warm ripple runs through the room as everybody takes a step forward. Not the kind of infatuated surge of an REM audience you understand, rather so that we can catch every nuance of Levesque's pathologically low-key melodies.

It is the strength of these songs, their sheer melodic reach, that has set Wheat apart from their peers. The songs convey an understated intensity, the mood unassuming yet utterly heartrending. Levesque's voice has an appealingly ravaged quality, seeming to crackle and spit when pushed to the limit, and often making him sound older than his years. He asks too much of it in "Who's the One" - as he reaches for the high note he misses it, seemingly by several octaves. But no matter.

Theirs is not a polished sound designed for mass consumption. It is a rough-hewn and intimate kind of music that makes you feel lucky to have found it.

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