Release Date: Mar 8, 2011
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Up until the release of 2011’s album Civilian, the indie rock duo of Wye Oak released two albums and one EP of solid, well-crafted indie rock. Built around the husky vocals and biting guitars of Jenn Wasner and the steady backbeat of Andy Stack, they trod upon familiar ground; writing mysterious and autumnal songs with a melancholy and intimate feel that had loud/quiet dynamics and a homemade sound. Not exactly innovative but delivered with enough passion to make the records keepers.
Civilian opens with the sound of ambient chatter, a room full of voices quickly washed away by steeled guitar and electronics. It's a shift at odds with the polar dynamics this Baltimore-based duo has sworn by in its half-decade career. In a 2009 interview, The Onion's AV Club asked guitarist/vocalist Jenn Wasner if her band's knack for suddenly juicing volume was done with the live experience in mind.
Wye Oak return with a third full-length, and a much established thing, with a few well-received records under their belt. The duo, if you didn't know, make bombastic but beautiful indie rock, with just a hint of Americana. Maybe it's modern folklore music, carrying on the guitar traditions of the now-distant '90s with much aplomb. One might also just mention Yo La Tengo and call it a day.
At the beginning of Civilian, you can hear the din of people. They shuffle around, their voices muffled, incoherent—just a crowd, some faceless noise. Once opener “Two Small Deaths” starts, however, it introduces a thick fog of atmospherics that acts as a border of sorts. The swell gets cut with sharp guitar notes, with the snap of rim taps, but it’s clear early on: for this record, Wye Oak is breaking away.
Wye Oak are a Maryland-based indie folk duo who lavish their sweet, strummy sound with layers and frequent outbursts of straight noise and various dream pop elements. Beyond just an interesting melding of two diametrically opposing genres, it became almost a competition between my ears and the band to see how succinctly they can combine their influences within their third LP, Civilian. More often than not, the twosome succeeded in blurring the lines in varying degrees without making it too big a deal.
Anyone looking for another boy-girl American rock duo to pin their hopes and tour posters to after the demise of The White Stripes are unlikely to find Wye Oak really fill the hole. For Baltimore twosome Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack could almost be the inverse image of Jack and Meg; and not just in the sense that it’s Jenn doing the strumming and singing whilst Andy taps the pans. It’s more that – where The White Stripes kindled both a fire in the belly and a rebirth of belief in old school rock’n’roll – Wye Oak have seemingly achieved little more than a few polite nods of appreciation from people who want something to file next to Beach House in their ‘East Coast alt.
To hijack Lady Macbeth, Baltimore’s Wye Oak are both the innocent flower serpent under’t. On paper (or Tumblr), they’re an adorable boy-girl folk-rock duo replete with bangs, doe eyes, nerdy glasses, some tasteful twang, and a bit of fuzz to keep things real. They’re marketable, mixtape-able, Starbucks-able. But IRL, their music ambushes you, burning not just barns but whole plantations, taut with latent ferocity and brooding bitterness.
Controversial novelist Bret Easton Ellis recently stated that in his work, “plots don’t really matter,” admiring the existentialist detective fiction of Raymond Chandler due to the value of an enthralling “journey, tone, and style” over logistical details or narrative intent. The same could be said about Civilian, the latest album from Baltimore indie duo Wye Oak, in which their usual walls of distortion and intense builds are further abandoned for evocative sonic dream-scapes, a trend they began to explore on 2009’s The Knot. This isn’t to say the album isn’t catchy (it is) or without premeditated momentum (it’s not), but the often gorgeous songs eschew the band’s well-chronicled loud soft dynamics and structure in favor of establishing a mood, then leaving the listener to revel in the ethereal environment.
Sensual whispers and twilight moans from the Baltimore duo. Garry Mulholland 2011 Wye Oak are from Baltimore. This is worth mentioning upfront because the music of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack couldn’t be more different from the B-More image given to us by repeat viewings of The Wire and the booty-quaking beats of the club-rap scene if it wore lederhosen and was entirely played on tubas.
At a time when every beachcomber with a four-track keeps rewriting the same pop song, Wye Oak offers a distinct and refreshing change of pace. The Baltimore duo, guitarist/vocalist Jenn Wasner and multi-instrumentalist Andy Stack, approaches albums with little thought to whether they can pull it off live, layering at times noisy guitar-rock over an impressionable palette of indie folk. While 2009's The Knot overextended in every direction, noted producer John Congleton helps reel matters back in on the band's third album.