Release Date: Jul 21, 2009
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Indie, Rock
I watched a DVD of Frozen River over the weekend and thanked the good Lord I didn’t believe in that the protagonist’s circumstances were not my own. Released to immense acclaim at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Frozen River plants its focus on Ray Eddy, an upstate New York trailer mom with two sons and a minimum wage job, whose husband (the boys’ father) has just run off with the cash Ray was about to spend on a new double-wide trailer to replace their current rat hole. Saddled with this promise to her family, as well as the daily struggle to keep them fed, Ray reluctantly enters the dangerous world of illegal immigration to make several thousand quick bucks, smuggling Korean and Pakistani immigrants across the US-Canadian border in the trunk of her car.
It seems these days that in order for a band to make waves within the indie elite, it has to favor irony and self-conscious musical references over heartfelt and honest music. Wye Oak is not one of these bands. Their sophomore album, The Knot, isn't complete with chamber orchestras from space and choir members from around the world singing in atonal harmony, but it is breathtakingly harrowing.
It’s not often that albums absolutely connect from the off, but damn, it’s a good feeling when they do. The opening riff of The Ugly Organ exploding from my car speakers; the tidal wave of anger and righteousness that The Holy Bible wreaked upon my tape deck; the finger-picked beginnings of XO that stopped me in my tracks; the icy embrace of Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space making a case for permanent residency in my hi-fi. Although Wye Oak's The Knot isn’t about to join the hallowed ranks of the aforementioned just yet (let’s get hold of ourselves, shall we?), its opening salvo has certainly hit me harder than anything else in recent months – quite a feat considering the tinny laptop output and sweltering temporary residence it had to contend with.
Wye Oak's second album follows the same basic blueprint as their first album--straight-up indie rock with no surprises, but just enough inspiration to keep it from being strictly derivative. The duo uses many trademark tricks of '90s indie rock like quiet verses/loud choruses, dynamic builds that end in guitar freakouts, and vocals buried in the mix. The '90s vibe is also heightened by Wasner's vocal similarities to Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo and the organic production that sounds like it could have (and maybe was) done on reel-to-reel tape rather than a computer.
Wye Oak's debut, If Children, was a small, surprising record. Surprising because it was the sound of two kids, barely 21, playing earnest, noisy folk-rock that ignored nearly every trend in indie music; surprising because it came out of Baltimore, a city whose indie scene-- lead by Dan Deacon and bands like Ponytail-- is publicized for its spasm and flash. Surprising because of the sympathy in Jenn Wasner's lyrics.
When critics say stuff like, “A decent debut, maybe the next one will be better,” some of us actually mean it. The strength at which Wye Oak revels in was somewhat hidden on its previous album, If Children. Lost in most of the noise and clutter was Jenn Wasner’s fantastic voice and Andy Stack’s ability as a “wall of sound” creator. On their new album, The Knot, these skills are not only refined but they showcase a wider, more advanced decadence and a band that sounds that much better, because of it.