I have enough respect for the word genius not to toss it out casually when talking about local bands. Ray Charles was a genius, and so was John Lennon, and maybe Phil Spector was during the golden age of 1960s three-minute pop tunes, but it seems kind of silly to use the G word in talking about music that comes from around the corner or down the block. Brandon Wiard, the amazingly talented twenty-something local pop songwriter and musician, may not be quite at the genius stage yet, but he's surely driving a fast sports car down the musical road toward it.

If your point of reference is a few decades in the past, you'll recognize hints of Lennon and Brian Wilson and Alex Chilton in his voice and in his style. Short, cleverly structured pop classics are his cup of tea, with enough layered quirkiness to keep you surprised. There is a bit of Elvis Costello and Wilco or Apples in Stereo floating around too, so everything he writes is a mix of old and new, or a slightly off-center conjunction of strangeness and familiarity.

On his latest recording, Painting a Burning Building, Wiard aims high and tries to beat Brian Wilson at the Smiley Smile / Pet Sounds game. Layers of guitars, voices, and keyboards fill up dozens of tracks, with lots of string parts adding to the fun. While his voice is a bit melodically flat and tense, his lyrics are clever and simple, focusing on the horror stories of loneliness and heartbreak. The record raises the stakes, because it's an attempt to make a classic rock record. And Wiard pulls it off really well.

As the Beatles figured out after making Sgt. Pepper, there is sometimes a battle between being great in the studio and reproducing a record note-for-note on stage. Wiard is smart enough not to make that attempt when playing a gig; he focuses on the cool underlying songs instead. When I caught the band last spring at Crazy Wisdom, where he was experimenting with bringing his five-piece band into an acoustic setting, the gamble paid off wonderfully. With the amps turned down low, so the double latte sippers wouldn't be too blown away by the volume, Wiard presented stripped-down versions of his tunes in a more laid-back fashion.

When you take away the tape loops, the overdubs, the wall-of-sound magic Wiard pulls off in the record-making setting, you can hear what a truly amazing songwriter he is. Tunes like the guitar rocker "Since You've Gone Away" and the beautifully sweet Paul McCartney-like ballad "Caroline" are indications of Wiard's immense potential.

Brandon Wiard opens for Katherine Schell at the Michigan Theater on Sunday, December 11.

[Review published December 2005]