If Namelessnumberheadman were from Venus, would they feed us with a spoon?
It's a question that must be asked. It's the question Paul Westerberg asked of Alex Chilton in his homage to the power-pop deity who fronted Big Star, produced a few songs by the Replacements and had a knack for songwriting that Westerberg deemed otherworldly. The chorus of "Alex Chilton" goes: Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round/They sing, "I'm in love/What's that song?/I'm in love/With that song. "
Locals who've heard Namelessnumberheadman know that feeling well. Over seven years, two albums, a demo and an EP of covers, the band has recorded some incredible songs, not to mention albums worth coming back to as time passes. The band's first proper album, 2002's When We Leave We'll Know Where We've Been, introduced a band capable of crafting prettiness without sounding wussy or pretentious. Artsy enough for geeks, groovy enough for the mainstream.
"Every Fiber," from the follow-up album, Your Voice Repeating (2004), brought to full effect the Nameless formula: crashing drums, cerebral guitar lines, electronic sounds that buzz and soar overhead, and naked vocals — solo at first, then in harmony. The band's best songs are the big ones, the ones that rise up and wash over the listener with feelings of uncontrived bliss and infinite possibility.
Listening to Namelessnumberheadman, you think, They gotta fucking be from outer space.
After all, considering the elegant simplicity of the pop music it's creating, the band has the most impossible setup. Drummer Andrew Sallee, who takes most of the lead vocals, not only operates his kit while singing but also plays keyboard parts with his left hand. Then he'll pivot to the right and play the pedal steel.
Guitarist Chuck Whittington doubles on keys and sings. Never soloing in the traditional sense, he writes guitar parts that complement the band's overall shimmering sound.
With an arcane array of electronic devices and keyboards through which he often runs his own voice, third Headman Jason Lewis makes the blippy sounds and synth waves and aaahs that give the band its electronic character.
These guys are some insane multitaskers. And they only get better with age.
Wires Reply, Nameless' third full-length, came out April 24, and it establishes the band as the most consistently good indie-rock act in town.
Opener "Animal Kingdom" swings for the fence with a symphonic whoosh of drums, ringing guitar and noise textures before leveling out to reverberating suspended chords from an acoustic guitar. Track two, "The Beginning," nails the best chorus the band has ever written; its key repeated phrase, I'll follow through with what I said, is the lyric Sallee was born to sing. Song No. 6, "Opposable Thumb," turns a D major 11 chord into a shower of sparks.
There's a lot to love on Wires Reply. Children by the million should run to it. But they probably won't.
After seven years, Nameless remains nameless, virtually. They've been courted by numerous labels, including a local operation; at times, something has seemed about to happen, but nothing has. Technically, Wires is on a label, but it's only for a limited vinyl pressing of 300 copies — St. Ives, a boutique division of Secretly Canadian, put the record out this week, with each sleeve hand-decorated by the band.
The band will then self-release Wires digitally (iTunes, eMusic, etc.) and have CDs made. But it's not the same as securing distribution, radio play and money.
"Labels all want the same thing," Sallee says. "They want a band that tours a ton, that's free to tour, that looks really cool, that has some crazy spin, like they're from some weird town, or they have strange haircuts, or they tend to be brother and sister, or not, or they were formerly married and aren't anymore and only wear black and white and red ... "
At the White Stripes allusion, he trails off, having targeted a band that banks on its image — one thing that Nameless lacks.
For all their talent, the Headmen just don't look cool enough — and they don't care enough to change, either. Sallee will wear Dockers to a gig, unapologetically and without irony. And he will play and sing just as well as if he were wearing tight jeans and checkered slip-on canvas shoes. The other guys are less dorky-looking than Sallee (sorry, Andrew), but not enough for, say, the cover of Spin.
And then there's the touring issue. Sallee and Whittington are both married with a kid apiece, and Lewis will move to Boston in June to tie the knot. The band will continue to record new music through online file transfers, but it won't play out nearly as much. And it won't tour at all.
"We've said, from the outset, we're not a touring workhorse band," Sallee says. "Once you get to be a certain age and realize what the dividends are going to be, it should just be about having fun. At this point, I'm concerned with us creating a body of work."
If a label honcho ever did wise up and make the band better known, new fans would already have a rich back catalog to explore. But as long as Namelessnumberheadman is content to make kickass home recordings, we'll keep licking up whatever they spoon out.