Record Review: Wye Oak’s Civilian

Wye Oak: Civilian (Merge, 3/8/11Wye Oak: Civilian)

Wye Oak: “Civilian”
[audio:|titles=Wye Oak: “Civilian”]

Since its debut album in 2008, Baltimore indie duo Wye Oak has drawn a concerning amount of comparisons to Yo La Tengo.  But despite the group’s occasionally mellow tones and deliberate tempos, singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner and multi-instrumentalist Andy Stack have presented more than pleasant, easy-going moods since If Children, that promising debut.

Even onstage, Wye Oak builds a full sound largely from Stack’s straightforward but well-defined drums and Wasner’s warm and often loud guitar playing, which is very resourceful on its own. (Stack also plays some keyboard parts with one hand while drumming.)  Though they always manage to sound like a fleshed-out band, the two reap at least one benefit of a two- (or even one-) person act, which is that sonics don’t distance them from the meat of a song. Even the streaks of feedback on If Children tracks “Warning” and “Orchard Fair” felt at one with the progressions of the songs, certainly anything but careless or sloppy.

And even the things that make Wye Oak records a bit difficult say more for them than against them. The sample of indistinct chatter that begins the new Civilian, for instance, gives opener “Two Small Deaths” an aptly unsettling place from which to sneak up. Don’t count on re-settling all that often, even when things are as pretty as you’d expect.

The 2009 record The Knot began a retreat from the overall brightness of the duo’s debut, and that continues here. Wasner’s vocals are the most obvious part of the change, keeping all the ache of Knot songs like “Take It In” and adding breath and flirting with mutters and lisps in the enunciation. On first listen, this can throw things off pretty much the whole way through. On returns, it’s not as distracting: the syllables get mushed sometimes; the melodies stay clear. This ends up helping in its own way, melding the vocals with the keyboards that seep in from the background to intensify the rhythms of “The Altar.”

The mood of that song isn’t clear — though it’s one of Wye Oak’s best and most fun songs yet — and whatever mood it is changes quite abruptly for the next track, “Holy Holy.” This doesn’t firmly settle on one particular feeling either: the lyrics imply a sarcastic takedown of a self-righteous figure, but the chorus becomes more of a blissful release on each go-round. This is a common pattern on Civilian — shifting emotions without ever being able to clearly define where you’re going or where you just were.

In contrast to seeming undefined, those feelings instead seem volatile and mixed.  The images in the title track evoke affection and mourning all at once, as Wasner talks about her baby teeth and sleeping in a bed together. Just the title Civilian suggests reduced, not-special status, so this is one of those Wye Oak songs that makes it feel okay to wonder if it comes from Wasner and Stack just being really frank about the tough moments that couples have sometimes. The song ends with two simultaneous guitar solos bending, moaning, and snarling at each other.  The prettiness and catchiness of Wye Oak are not there to guard you from the moment when someone winces, chokes up, or throws a plate. Just hear the raw chunks of guitar that shred open the initially nervous and vague “Dog Eyes.”

Civilian has a certain frustration built right into its clearest melodies and smartest arrangements. “Plains” drifts and sways between brief, startling choruses; closer “Doubt” speeds up and slows down at will; “Hot As Day” steams together the new album’s vague fearfulness and the feedback blooms of If Children.  Yet those who love the first two albums won’t lose the trail here.  The album doesn’t abandon what Wye Oak sounds like; it just expands on it.

Wasner and Stack’s music is still welcoming and still has its share of familiarity, yet the two insist on pulling you through a lot.  These are catchy songs with a mysterious tinge.  This is modest-to-the-bone music that still demands to be played loud and struggled with.  Civilian never entirely lets you get over its initial jolts, and that’s one of its virtues.

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