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IF, AS WHEAT singer/guitarist Scott Levesque believes, indie rock is a "church of genre," with its acolytes slavishly worshiping their heroes' sounds and styles, the Boston-area quartet he fronts are neither choirboys nor apostates. They're just clean-cut kids composing cranky new verses for the hymns. The band's latest, Hope and Adams (Sugar Free) wants it both ways, too, featuring both grandly layered guitars and low-rent studio trickery as the musical sensibility wavers between gawky engagement and cool distance. When the self-effacement of "Slow Fade" ("No one likes it slow/And we take our time/And the crowd was rockin'/But the band played on") slides into angelic harmonies, you don't know whether to raise your Bic or stroke your chin. And that, says Levesque, is the idea.
"I love that point of being right on that line, of being, 'Geez is this good or not?'" he admits, speaking by phone from Providence, Rhode Island. "It's a weird line to walk, but we find it fun. There will even be groups of people who split on it. I read a review once where one guy [said], 'Instead of Hope and Adams it should be called Bryan Adams.' Which I thought was great. At least he took a stand!"
Formed in 1996, Wheat never meant to venture much beyond recording in bedrooms. Tired of fruitless efforts in earlier bands, core members Levesque, drummer Brendan Harney, and guitarist Ricky Brennan turned their backs on marketing and concentrated on amusing themselves. It worked all too well--one audience member, impressed by an early Providence gig the band deemed "horrendous," sent a tape to Chicago's Sugar Free records. The label signed Wheat immediately, resulting in 1997's beautiful, if perplexing, Medeiros.
Medeiros's stately pop melodies nearly balloon to the point of power-ballad pomposity, but crackly static, Levesque's supple voice (imagine Todd Rundgren and Paul Westerberg pooling their limited supplies of optimism), and sardonic lyrics relieve the pressure. "Summer" is a shadow of the Beach Boys' "Fun, Fun, Fun," detailing suburban boredom with pathos and irony: "Hey kid you already knew/When you dropped off that waitress that you/You'd be eating all by yourself." And "Leslie West" (its title feting Mountain's man-mountain main man) features a hilarious musical joke. A guitar solo that oozes like sweat on a beer bottle is announced by the sound of a tape player being cued up: "BIG SAPPY-ASS GUITAR SOLO AHEAD."
The band's sphere of influence grew when Medeiros's "Death Car" was released as a 45 in the U.K. "Car" became British rock mag NME's "Single of the Week," and landed Wheat a European tour. The shift from New England to Olde England wasn't seamless, but it was successful: While NME notices treated their fashion sense with alarm ("They look like farmers"), they had nothing but raves for the act's low-key show.
Less brooding than Wheat's debut, 1999's Hope and Adams found Flaming Lips producer David Frishman coating mid-Eighties guitar textures in studio sheen. Lyrically, the ratio of flat-out longing to acerbic self-deprecation has risen, spiked with some judiciously crafty thefts. "Body Talk Part II" filches from Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," while "Roll the Road" (with vocals evoking an asthmatic Wayne Coyne) borrows from Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'."
Levesque talks about this larceny with good humor. "Bowie was quoting Beatles lyrics," he says. "Those [borrowings] become really interesting pieces of irony later." Without splitting semantic hairs, it's important to note that while Wheat poke fun at rock excess, the jabs at cliché are affectionate, not contemptuous. "I'd rather have it be a little ironic than just cynical," Levesque insists. "Because cynicism has become the new meal; it's what's for dinner now. Everywhere."