You Can Be A Wesley made some waves this past year with the release of Heard Like Us, a mélange of clean, crisp Telecaster licks, peppery percussion, and otherworldly vocals woven together into sweet and bracing indie rock compositions. Comparisons were thrown out likening the Boston-based quartet to the Pixies, Pavement, and Joanna Newsom. The local press, from the Boston Phoenix, to CMJ, to QRO Magazine, tabbed them as a band to keep an eye on. Not bad for a few BU students on the verge of graduation. Since then the band has been mixing bouts of touring with time in the studio, assembling a much anticipated raft of new material.
It’s no mistake that You Can Be A Wesley often receives comparisons to the indie rock legends from the 90s. The band revisits a time when guitar was still the undisputed king-of-the-ring. Heard Like Us saunters, sprints and strolls through a postpunk landscape where the spartan simplicity of the standard-issue punk arsenal is highlighted with a few bells and whistles to achieve a more country, folky coloring. You Can Be A Wesley can sound brash and raw when they want to, as they do on the riveting climax of “Creatures.” Saara Untracht-Oakner and Winston Macdonald know how to make a guitar scream, while Nick Curran (bass) and Dan Goldenberg (drums) can pelt the listener with some aggressive rhythms when they want to. But the most characteristic moments of the album come in songs like “Wildlife,” “Kiddie Pool” and “Make Up Your God” where the band takes a more contemplative and (comparatively) quieter approach to their subject matter. Like Pavement, You Can Be A Wesley can rearrange the abrasive textures of a punk inheritance to craft songs that leave behind the easy confrontational attitudes of adolescent chutzpah for more uncertain, more mature, and more perplexed territory. Heard Like Us, recorded with J. Mendocino (of Pretty and Nice), used a few unconventional means to coax some strange flavors out of the music. Untraacht-Oakner recalls the odder instrumentation choices: “We used some keyboards, melodica (“Rearrange the Sea” ), random percussion things including banging on books and couches. There’s a bunch of layers in some parts that make it really interesting sonically but it all blends in well so that it’s not very obvious.”
Complementing the instrumentation are lyrics that mix the trivial with the profound. The inspired juxtaposition is so absurd as to be true to life. Consider the track “Fourth Walls” , which lifts its title from reality TV jargon, the so-called ‘fourth wall’ that separates the self-important D-level role players from the writers, producers, and crew whose job it is to record the drunken shenanigans for posterity. The ‘fourth wall’ is the constantly compromised dividing line between real and the surreal, the hyphen between ‘reality’ and ‘TV’, for characters like Gary Coleman and Omarosa. But for you and me, the ‘fourth wall’ is that dividing line between our own subjective hopes, dreams and estimations of the world, on the one hand, and an impersonal bird’s eye view of the world that always threatens to annihilate our pretensions. Life seems to be a continual feud between these two halves, a predicament into which we are all tirelessly plunged. Grim stuff; but slowly building riffs and sweet progressions of “Fourth Walls” remind us that there is beauty even in struggle, and that for every storm there is a quiet afterwards.
You Can Be A Wesley makes music that rewards relistening. You may like a song immediately, but not be able to figure out what excited your fancy until you’ve become more familiar with its twists and turns. A quick twangy line from the lead guitar, a naked walking bass, a percussive flourish: you’ll find pleasant surprises scattered like colorful easter eggs all through their songs. You Can Be A Wesley has a gift for the light compositional touch, the sort of off-the-cuff invention not usually written down or even discussed, that is characteristic of bands with a lot more experience. If there is one bold element that will grab you right away, however, it’s the standout vocals of Untracht-Oakner. She’s concocted a strange alchemy in her delivery, impressive in its range and depth. There are the pixy strains of Joanna Newsom in “Kiddie Pool” , the folk bansheeisms of Margaret Darling (of Seedy Seeds) on “Wildlife” , and occasionally she hits an old skool riot grrrl howl á la Kathleen Hanna (literally “old skool” - Hanna just donated her collected papers, ‘zines, letters to New York University- is she planning to die soon?). Without sounding like a copy, she’s managed to cull the best of all their qualities into a truly ennervating hybrid.
For the A-side, Untracht-Oakner pushes her vocals all the way up to eleven. The Boston press fell in love with “Creatures” when it came out as the single for Heard Like Us. The track begins with a quiet xx-esque bassline, bouncy drums, and talky vocals before upshifting into a banshee-howling chorus. It’s the old loud/quiet/loud manouevre that drew so many comparisons to the Pixies. The memorable climax was the result of some experimental tomfoolery in the studio: “There’s a part in Creatures,” Untracht-Oakner remembers, “where my vocals had a robot type effect on them. That was really funny when we were recording it. Jeremy would also just twist knobs on our pedals as we were playing parts and some really cool sounds came out of that.” Who knows if Black Francis would have tolerated someone toying with the knobs while he sang (probably not), but maybe he should have, because the sustained 6-measure howl is one of the most unforgettable moments of the album.
The B-side “Summerhomes” is one of You Can Be A Wesley’s old favorites. Untracht-Oakner recalls its genesis: “Summerhomes is from our first 3 song demo that we gave out at shows which included “Gravity” and “Fire It Off”. We recorded it with our friend Alex McKneely in his apartment in Allston…Winston wrote that first guitar part and was looping it with a pedal and playing slide over it. This is back in winter 2007. Winston taught me how to play the main riff and I think I went home that night and wrote lyrics immediately.” The track is a quieter, more reflective number: an acoustic, finger-picky meditation with a pretty-as-a-picture slide guitar. The lyrics hit their peak of poignancy with the line “We found out how we’ll die/So we all bought summerhomes in the sky.” Not the sort of sentiment that is going to spark a proletarian revolution, but true to life nonetheless. You Can Be A Wesley reserves it for special occasions: “It has to be the right mood…we don’t want to bring people down if they just want to dance and get wild.”
No longer Boston’s best-kept-secret, You Can Be A Wesley have been previewing new material at shows all up and down the east coast and into Canada. Untracht-Oakner reports on the status of the new songs (but keeps mum on release dates): “…we have a bunch of songs we’ve been playing live and then a bunch that are in the works and almost done and a few ideas here and there for other things. We’ve got a full album’s worth of material on it’s way.” On the direction of the new songs: “A lot of the new songs rock pretty hard. We’re definitely getting into some louder stuff and just trying to keep it fun and interesting. There are a couple songs in the works that are more sway-ie than dance-ie but will still punch you in the face.” Sway-ie, dance-ie, but will still punch you in the face. Figure out how to make music like that and You Can Be A Wesley too.