Sensory Overload: The Whiles

From the February 28, 2013 edition

Most of my greatest listening experiences happen while driving in the dead of night. Road trips, coming home from the bar, cruising aimlessly — something different happens after dark. Even the gentlest music is bigger, realer, more immersive.

In 2007, The Whiles’ Sleepers Wake was responsible for several of those experiences. Melancholy grace was in its marrow. This was delicate but substantial music, the kind that makes you feel like your Honda Civic might float off into the atmosphere along with the song.

I remember hearing buzz about an impossibly young folk-pop band once known as Mrs. Children while studying down in Athens 2002-2006, but I wasn’t around for that early era, when Zack Prout’s angelically ordained vocal cords effervesced all over Joe Peppercorn’s carefully-crafted indie ballads. They were on a path to stardom, but that train derailed when Prout left the band after 2004 debut Colors of the Year. And not to deprive The Whiles of their well-deserved hypothetical fame and fortune, but I’d trade their would-be professional music career for Sleepers Wake any day.

It seemed like that might be all The Whiles we’d get, but after a dormant stretch, the band returned last year with a new album, Somber Honey, and regular Columbus concerts. Although I witnessed them perform as Peppercorn’s backing band for the Beatles marathon last December, their show Saturday at Kobo was my first Whiles concert for probably half a decade.

I was pleased to witness a career-spanning set heavy on Sleepers Wake tracks; more importantly, this was a rejuvenated band that’s better for the wear. The songs brimmed with vigor, churning along with shades of R.E.M. and The Wrens plus the post-Dylan songwriter canon as ever. Matt Peppercorn’s effects-laden guitar leads supplied ample melodic juice, and substitute drummer Nick Nocera didn’t miss a beat.

Joe’s keyboard was notably absent. The rock renaissance he described last year was on display, punctuated by a climb atop the monitor to howl through the climactic finish of “Songs We Used to Know.” I never thought I’d witness such aggression from the mild-mannered Whiles, but they’re only growing bolder with age. If they really release a fourth album this year as promised, it’s going directly to my car.