I am unabashedly in love with Wye Oak. The music they create is so beautiful, I sometimes have to stop and catch my breath or clap my hands with delight at each audacious turn of phrase, shift in tempo, or sudden blast of noise. And each new recording by this two-piece, boy-girl band from Baltimore brings with it more surprises, newer ideas, and fresh insights about love and life in general.
Take their latest creation, Civilian, produced by John Congleton, the same guy who produced last year’s album Lisbon by The Walkmen (as well as records by Modest Mouse, Shearwater, and Swan Lake). He serves well their spare, 21st century folkie visions of loneliness and heartache, helping them in their ongoing journey to create a whole new American vernacular that marries the haunting ghost stories and heartache tales of wounded lovers with electronic studio trickery, hypnotic guitars, and industrial noise.
Civilian opens with an audio collage of a crowd, people talking, before opening into a spare, quiet waltz-like “Two Small Deaths.” The second song, “The Altar,” builds off that spare guitar playing, but the soaring vocals are suddenly married to a grounded stomping bass with flourishes of synthesizer swirling around like curlicues. A squishy, ethereal guitar solo breaks the steady beat before cascading back into that relentless stomp. It seems as though the song takes off into the sky before returning to earth, crash-landing into a bit of crunchy feedback.
“Holy Holy” erupts with yawning electric guitars, and once again I get the impression of music seeking flight. Jenn Wasner’s husky voice serves the material well, at times keening with heartache, then chanting magical incantations as Andy Stack’s multiple instruments build a suitable backdrop for her moody meditations.
Track four, “Dog Eyes,” takes off in a different, more angular and syncopated direction, switches gears a minute into it with feedback-drenched guitar, and then switches back to the more snappy rhythm of the opening bars. Its angularity and changing rhythms reminds me a little of veteran Austin rockers Glass Eye.
The title cut, “Civilian,” follows with a martial beat and hard-strummed guitars that break into an exquisitely distorted guitar solo three-fourths of the way through, only to have a single organ-chord emerge at the very last moment. You can find “Civilian” floating around on the Internet. Download a version and give yourself something to listen to before the album release in March.
The album continues its dreamy strumming through “Fish” and “Plains,” two slow, somber numbers full of atmospherics before breaking free into the almost poppy, nearly melodic “Hot as Day.” I think this is as close as Wye Oak has come to a hit single in their three albums, but what a beautiful soaring song it is, shimmering guitars and vocals that take you into the clouds. The second-to-last cut, “We Were Wealth,” brings all the musical and lyrical themes around full circle in a lush crescendo, then segues into the spare, acoustic-only “Doubt,” leaving us with an open-ended ambiguity — just like life.
Wasner has described the songs on this album, “as a whole, about aloneness (the positive kind), loneliness (the horrible kind), moving on, and letting go of people, places, and things.” Those feelings come through on each cut, making this one of the more satisfying and mature albums I’ve heard in a while.