Wye Oak


Rating: 4.3/5.0

Label: Merge

I think there are all sorts of subset styles of music I’m supposed to invoke when writing about Wye Oak. Dream pop, for sure, and probably indie folk. There’s a pleasing buzzy drone to some of the songs, so I might be tempted to term it shoegazer. Or is that already implied in dream pop? The circles within circles within circles start to turn into a page of psychopathic scribbles until the onslaught of categories begins to seem like an affront to the music itself. Sometimes I want nothing more than to get past the endlessly expanding vocabulary of music descriptors and define different bands and album by their quality rather than the handful of sonic characteristics that are recognizably shared with others. When I’m asked what kind of music I like, I don’t want to answer math rock or twee pop or anything like that. I want to say “good music” and have it mean something.

Wye Oak’s Civilian is good music. Damn good music.

The third album from the duo has a tougher edge than I recall from their previous efforts. There’s an ethereal quality to many of the songs, but the guitars are always lurking underneath, murmuring a slightly menacing warning. They’re the stranger milling at the edge of the party who might explode at any minute, changing the dynamic beyond any reasonable preparation. When the guitar sound is fully unleashed in piercing solos, it has a bracing, almost cleansing effect. “Hot as Day” shimmers with tender, contemplative ache–like a less chilly Cocteau Twins song–until Jenn Wasner’s guitar moves in with a contained explosion that’s pure release.

Those are the sorts of shifting tempos, moving to their own inscrutable logic, that form the fabric of the album. “Holy Holy” plugs away, sporadically churning up like a tornado only to quickly dissipate, until it finally breaks open in a surge of distorted wonderment.

“Dog Eyes” moves to something that sounds like a perkier version of the rhythm line from “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” as if the pep rally of the damned in the music video had taken a more uplifting turn. At least that’s the case until the midpoint in the song when it gives way to a beautiful assault of guitar and drums. Then there are songs that simply have flares of raised volume, like “Plains,” which bursts forth sharply, the band seemingly banging against the iron bars of the speakers, demanding freedom.

All of that winds up adding tension to the tracks that are more sedate. “The Alter,” for example, never breaks out of its narcotic groove. Wasner sings with soft sorrow as she strums herself a cozy blanket made of chords, all while Andy Stack sets his drums and keyboard sneakily against one another with slightly dueling rhythms. Sometimes it’s most exciting to wait for the eruption that never arrives.

That powerful sense of uncertainty also cuts across the lyrics, which have the hard smack of exhausted confession, even when the specific sentiments are a little oblique. Wasner’s words pour out in a lovely, open-hearted tumble, and meaning often transcends the language. The details about baby teeth kept in a bedside table in the song “Civilian” don’t carry as much weight as the yearning tone in Wasner’s voice. And just as the music can turn on a dime, Wasner’s mystery can fall away to reveal an especially heartrending lyric like, “Perfectly able to hold my own hand/ But I still can’t kiss my own neck” that makes the pain of lost love cruelly real. And it all unfolds across a perfectly constructed pop song that builds with thrilling certainty.

So go ahead and slap Wye Oak and Civilian with whatever moniker from the minutely divided sections of the music landscape you want. I’m going to stick with damn good.

by Dan Seeger

Key Tracks: Civilian, Plains

See Also: Wye Oak- My Neighbor/My Creator


See Also: Wye Oak- The Knot


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