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After four years, a new crop of Wheat

Act plows new ground with the support of a major label

And suddenly, after all this time of waiting and wondering when and if they would return with their soft sparkle and gentle glamour, Wheat is back among us. It's been four years since the Boston-based trio released "Hope and Adams" on the tiny Chicago label Sugar Free, and even longer since the band's wondrously cryptic 1997 debut, "Medeiros," bestowed instant indie-rock mystique on three camera-shy guys from Taunton.

Four years is an eternity in pop music. Trends come, bands go, styles and genres are ascribed up-to-the-minute relevance one moment and discarded as junk-culture ephemera the next. For the artists who reside in this rarefied but merciless realm, the prospects for success and longevity depend on any number of variables: dumb luck, business savvy, unswerving determination, or undeniable talent.

That Wheat -- singer-guitarist Scott Levesque, drummer Brendan Harney, and guitarist Ricky Brennan -- has the latter two qualities in abundance is beyond dispute. That the group has had precious little luck, until recently, on the business end of things is also beyond debate.

"I think Radiohead's had four records out since `Hope and Adams' came out," Harney says with a laugh. "And they're good records." Wheat's third album and major-label debut, "Per Second, Per Second, Per Second . . . Every Second" (out Tuesday on Aware/Columbia) was supposed to have been released two years ago on another label, in a different version.

But this being the music industry, where last-minute delays, zero-hour corporate mergers, and fickle public tastes can make or break careers faster than you can say Mariah Carey, trouble found Wheat in the form of a derailed distribution deal involving its would-be label, Nude. Extricating themselves from the legal entanglements took more than a year.

"We were in that weird limbo and we said, `We can either break up or we can write more songs,' " Levesque says, seated across from Harney over an afternoon pot of Turkish coffee at a Cambridge restaurant. "So we wrote another 20 songs." Wheat then went back to the recording studio, where it began working on new material with "Hope and Adams" producer Dave Fridmann , who has sculpted ambitious albums by the Flaming Lips as well as that of his own band, Mercury Rev. The first song the band came up with in this period of gloomy uncertainty was, remarkably enough, an upbeat composition called "I Met a Girl." The tune found its way to the ears of Steve Smith, a vice president of A&R for Aware Records whose parent label, Columbia, had major distribution muscle. Smith happened to be a huge fan of the band." `Medeiros' and `Hope and Adams' are two of my favorite records of all time," Smith says. When a third album didn't materialize, he wondered, "Whatever happened to Wheat?" Smith found out that the band was signed to Nude, heard an advance copy of the unreleased version of "Per Second," and "also fell in love with that record." He remembers wishing he could sign them right then and there.

Eventually, Wheat's free agency was the window of opportunity he was looking for. "We are very, very excited about this record," Smith said. "There are high expectations, but the great thing is, they're not instant expectations. We're going to let things happen slowly and naturally."

First up for Wheat, Smith says, is a string of tour dates opening for Liz Phair. Plans are also in the works to rerelease Wheat's first two albums at some point, he says.

Levesque and Harney say that Aware liked the initial version of "Per Second" more than they did. It was solely the band's decision, they say, to retool the disc by scrapping several of the finished tracks and replacing them with reworked arrangements or new compositions entirely.

The result? A honed collection of clever, thoughtful pop songs -- ear candy gilded with luscious hooks but smarts as well, and primed for modern rock radio. Still, taken as a whole, "Per Second" is a bold step away from the lo-fi languor and spangled haze that floated through the band's previous work.

"For good or bad, we will never make the same record twice," Harney said. "You always risk alienating folks but the only way for the band to make it interesting is to make it a journey."

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