Back in October I mentioned one of my new favorite songs, Wheat's "Closer to Mercury." It comes from their third album, 2003's Per Second, Per Second, Per Second ... Every Second, which I finally bought yesterday after copying it from my brother back in December. He found out about Wheat back in July after copying "Closer to Mercury" from my computer and immediately thinking, "I wonder if they have more songs like this one."
They do. "I Met a Girl," "Some Days," "These Are Things," "Life Still Applies," "Can't Wash It Off"—every single one has giant pop hooks and ready-for-my-close-up vocals by Scott Levesque, who also gets nicely swoony/dreamy on songs like "Don't I Hold You" (the hidden track that's an update of the version that appears on 1999's Hope and Adams), "The Beginner," and "Hey, So Long (Ohio)." The reviews from 2003 that I've read—from both critics and bloggers—say that Wheat changed their sound quite a bit for Per Second in an attempt to gain a wider audience. This seems to have angered certain fans who fell in love with Hope and Adams, an album you can hear for free at thiswheat.com, a band-sanctioned Web site. It's also giving away Wheat's first album, 1998's Medeiros, as well as demos from 1996 and early versions of songs from Per Second that were recorded in 2001 for Nude Records before that label folded—Wheat then signed with Aware/Columbia and recorded the Per Second songs all over again in the fall of '02.
It's awfully nice of Wheat to give away their first two albums for free (both are out of print), and it gives new fans like me a chance to see if their sound changed that much from '99 to '03. It did, but it's not like they sold out to get some face time on VH1. (If that was in fact the plan, it obviously didn't work.)
If you're a fan of smart, shiny pop music like I am, it seems clear that what Wheat did for Per Second was to bring their previous sound into focus and give it some caffeine. They upped the tempos and added lots of background chatter and chopped-up guitar fuzz that don't overwhelm the melodies, and they weren't afraid to put glorious falsetto "hoo hoo hooos" in the choruses. I have a ridiculous crush on this album.
(Here's someone else's love letter to Per Second. It's hard to follow at times, but the writer makes a good point about Per Second in comparison to Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin, albums that are easy to like but hard to fall for.)
One review favorably compared album opener "I Met a Girl" to vintage Todd Rundgren and Hall & Oates, which reminded me that back in 1998, New Radicals' hit "You Get What You Give" was alternately called Rundgren-esque and the best song Hall & Oates never recorded. (When Hall & Oates covered New Radicals' "Someday We'll Know" in 2003, with backing vocals by Rundgren, it seemed like they were returning a compliment.) Personally, I kept focusing on the fact that New Radicals' lead singer, Gregg Alexander, sounded a lot like World Party's Karl Wallinger. And in 2002, when Santana and Michelle Branch's "The Game of Love" came out, I thought, "This sounds like 'You Get What You Give.'" It turned out that Gregg Alexander cowrote the song.
Let's see, where was I before this tangent? Oh yeah—if you liked what New Radicals did on Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too, you'll probably like what Wheat does on Per Second. And you should already like Todd Rundgren and Hall & Oates, but that's a given.
Did Wheat hire a big-time producer in order to make what was once blurry crystal clear? Nope, they used Dave Fridmann, former Mercury Rev bassist and perennial Flaming Lips producer. (John Fields is credited with producing the songs "Breathe" and "Closer to Mercury.") Fridmann also produced Hope and Adams, so it's unlikely he forced any kind of agenda on Wheat, although the sonic quirks you hear on Lips albums like The Soft Bulletin also shine through on Per Second.
Per Second seemed to come and go in late '03 and early '04, which is a shame. Songs like "I Met a Girl," "Closer to Mercury," and "Some Days" belong on the radio and should be on the radio, but that battle's never going to be won. And with Wheat's popularity still safely contained, much like a virus, fans can continue to appreciate them as a well-kept secret. It's just that Wheat now has two types of fans, I suppose—those who love them for Hope and Adams and those who love them for Per Second. I'll take the instantly memorable hooks of Per Second's songs any day over Hope and Adams's less immediate melodies.
Their new album, Everyday I Said a Prayer for Kathy and Made a One Inch Square, is supposed to come out this spring, and judging by the two songs I've heard so far, the remaining members of the group appear to be retreating from the big pop shine of Per Second. I'm disappointed, but I don't blame them. Maybe they weren't entirely comfortable with the gloss the last time out. But they hit one out of the park with Per Second, so there's no need for them to feel embarrassed.
(On a side note, I often wish AllMusic.com allowed for open editing the way Wikipedia does. All Music incorrectly lists the 12th track on Per Second as "This Rough Music" instead of "This Rough Magic," and the review of the album states that "Closer to Mercury" is a remake of Hope and Adams's "Don't I Hold You" and that there's a second version of "Closer to Mercury" tacked onto the end of the album, even though, as previously mentioned, the hidden track is the 2003 version of "Don't I Hold You," which sounds nothing like "Closer to Mercury." There's a box marked "Corrections to this Entry?" at the bottom of almost every page on All Music's site, but nobody seems to have checked the few corrections I've sent in since 2000. Pay me to do it, All Music. I'd love to.)