From the first notes of "Hurricane Cocaine," a slow-building, richly layered pop-rocker, Wages establishes itself. Were this a speed skating trial, they'd be Apolo Ono overtaking three Koreans in a single fluid motion. Were this an Iron Chef match, they'd be Kat Cora with all her practiced cool and secret spice. Were it not the CD release for the group's debut EP, One: In Sun, no one would believe the recent Saturday Wages show at Lexington Avenue Brewery's listening room was among the group's first public appearances.
But this band, led by guitarist/vocalist Nick Campbell, isn't exactly brand new. Campbell, bassist Alex Hornbake and drummer James DeDakis were members of Asheville-transplants Arizona. After Arizona's Ben Wigler and Andrew Dunn left town and that much-hyped group disbanded, the remaining musicians put together Wages, which builds on Arizona's excellent musicianship, catchy melody lines and tightly-crafted lyrics. But Wages is more accessible, tighter, softer and dreamier.
"Never thought I'd be a keeper, never thought I'd be the painting of a daydream in my life. I've been wracked with paranoia, I've been destroyed by diseases in my mind," Campbell sings on "Hurricane Cocaine." And, "I took a look, and it took me under. There's no recover, there's no recover" on "Eclipse."
"This is the first time playing that song," Campbell announces after completing the latter tune at LAB. It's a seamless performance — not quite as pin-drop clarion as on the group's Echo Mountain-recorded EP, but they perform it live without a stumble. One thing is certain: Wages' players share both excellent chemistry and a strong work ethic. These songs have been polished and refined for a well-rehearsed show.
Lyrically, the songs are substantive; melodically, they're complex, shimmery and emphasized by peals of high-range "Ooos" that recall Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell. It could almost be said that Wages is a platform for Campbell's easy, agile vocals, his stunning range and the sumptuous background harmonies the group achieves. But the rest of the elements: The rhythm section, the meticulous solos, the precise three-minute form — it's all in balance. DeDakis is a formidable drummer, driving the beat without needing to play loud. When Campbell's falsetto soars, DeDakis anchors the song with plenty of bass-y kick drum. When the band turns to darker, heavier rock, DeDakis is all snare flourishes and shimmery cymbals.
Local songwriter/guitarist/producer Clay Blair (Yesterday's Tomorrow, Treasury Band) joins the trio for their stage show, lending rhythm and lead guitar parts. The additional musician helps Wages to recreate the opulent layering they accomplished in the studio: An interesting dichotomy, as their music is at once spare and complex. It's immediately compelling yet, upon repeated listening to the band's recording, continues to reveal its many textures and facets.
Wages shares the stage at LAB with Athens, Georgia-based indie rockers Gift Horse, and The Houston Brothers, a compelling pop duo from Charlotte. Though its Wages' show, they opt to play the middle set and are rewarded with the largest audience. And, really, that's as it should be: The new group turns out the most engaging performance of the evening with plenty of promise for what's to come.