“Off the Pedestal” – Wheat
Slinky and insistent, driven by a drone below and singer Scott Levesque’s sleepy-assured vocals above, this song gives you a glimpse of what the Massachusetts-based band Wheat was up to before “I Met a Girl” became an adult-alternative radio staple (as it appears to be right now; it may yet go the full top-40 route). “Off the Pedestal” comes from the band’s 1999 CD Hope and Adams, an album that created a buzz in indie circles as much for the band’s disinterest in publicity as for the music itself—the album not only had no pictures of the band but didn’t even list the members’ names. This song has an appealing, busy sort of fuzziness—listen for the oddly cheerful marimba-like synthesizer mixed down into the drone; it’s the kind of touch that subliminally adds texture and interest to a song that might otherwise sink from its own subtlety.
“Grace Cathedral Hill” – the Decemberists
More atmospheric and melodic magic from the Decemberists. Like XTC before them, this band has a way of putting a 19th-century veneer on rock’n’roll—truly a charming effect, the rare times someone can manage it. “Grace Cathedral Hill” can be found on Castaways and Cutouts, the band’s 2002 debut. I enjoy how the pretty turns of the melody contrast with the harshness of some of the imagery, much as singer Colin Meloy’s buzzy voice contrasts with the gorgeous lilt of the song. Eschewing the lo-fi vibe of many of its independent peers, this Portland, Ore.-based quintet creates exquisitely crafted music: from the space implicit in the opening strum of the acoustic guitar to the knowing addition of musical layers as the song develops, it’s clear that strikingly capable hands are at work here.
Maybe it helps if you’ve lived in Cincinnati (that’s where they’re from) and already own an Ass Ponys record or two; and I’m sure it also helps if you have memories of driving around in your parent’s car just after getting your driver’s license and hearing this Eric Carmen song played incessantly on the AM radio. That said, listening to Ass Ponys’ leader Chuck Cleaver warbling ’70s pop kitsch may not be the best introduction to this quirky band’s substantial charms, but then again it could be just the thing. I’ve yet to hear their most recent two CDs, but can speak highly of Electric Rock Music, from 1996, which found the Ass Ponys on a major label, of all things. Don’t be surprised, by the way, when this song all but grinds to a standstill about two-thirds of the way through—at once an awkward and all but perfect tribute to the pop melodrama therein unfolding. Like the band notes on its web site, the song is “performed only like Eric wishes he could have done it.”