Confession time: up until I heard Wye Oak’s masterful cover of The Kinks’ “Strangers” for the A.V. Club’s excellent A.V. Undercover series, I wasn’t entirely sold on this band. I lumped them in with the “polite, kind of boring” category that’s launched numerous think pieces bemoaning the pervasive high-concept/ minimal rhythm section sound that some claim is gradually making the indie rock Venn diagram look more like a circle. But “Strangers”‘ countrified sound and fuzzed-out guitar threw some of the amicable shoegazing of previous albums and EPs into sharp relief. It’s a sound that looks good on the band, and happily, some of these elements get carried through into Wye Oak’s most recent full-length, Civilian.
Wye Oak falls in the ranks of other esteemed duos like the White Stripes (R.I.P.) and the Black Keys, in that they’re capable of producing a full, rounded sound with only two people and– in Wye Oak’s case– three(ish) instruments. Civilian isn’t exactly what you’d call a “loud” album, but Wye Oak do excel at sneakily building volume and (as a result) interest. In general, they begin by establishing a riff with guitar or organ, then slowly add more elements, bolstering the song until you’re suddenly aware that you’re listening to something really robust. These kinds of songs aren’t always immediately arresting, but they do have a way of endearing themselves to listeners (see: Grizzly Bear’s burgeoning popularity). In that way, Civilian does have some staying power. Snippets like the fingerpicked phrase in “Civilian” or “Holy, Holy”‘s 70s-rock power coda have a way of breaking through the haze and shuffling on repeat in your head.
With good reason, Civilian is likely to prompt a lot of comparisons to fellow Baltimore-based indie darlings Beach House– and indeed, the latter’s 2010 breakthrough Teen Dream does share some of the same strengths and weaknesses (plus, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner and Beach House’s Victoria Legrand share similar sounding pipes). But, instead of complementing their frontwoman’s hollow, smoky, melancholy voice with instruments that echo and reinforce these qualities, Wye Oak pull a 180 and bolster Wasner’s vocals with fuzzy 70s-rock guitars. It’s a tactic that works especially well in the aforementioned coda to “Holy, Holy,” where the delicate multi-tracked harmony gets firmly pinned to a wall of noise.
Obviously, Wasner’s unique voice is one of the band’s greatest assets; it’s high and sweet, but also throaty and smoky. This combination gives it a quality that makes her sound simultaneously youthful and hardened. Appropriately, Civilian‘s lyrics tend to mirror that same duality, as in the title track’s first verse: “I still keep my baby teeth in a bedside table with my jewelry.” It’s an image that’s both creepy and endearing, a world-weary individual grasping at a retreating youth.
The ability to establish and sustain a mood looms large in Wye Oak’s M.O., and Civilian certainly capitalizes on this ability. Most of the album’s songs are strong, but taken as a whole, there aren’t a lot of peaks and lows to shake up the sameness. A lingering quality is predominant in most of these songs; Wye Oak build up a lot of tension with precious little release. This can prove frustrating– even tedious– at times, but it can be done well and “The Altar” is a particularly great example. Although a sense of stasis hangs heavy over the song, the gorgeous chord progression definitely imparts a sense of momentum, even though it’s the same set of chords over and over, occasionally giving way to a flurry of guitars. This changeup technique doesn’t work quite as well on “Dog Eyes,” a song with two “movements” and two radically different time signatures that butt heads, creating an effect that’s jarring and sloppy rather than arresting.
With novelists and bands, we’re used to a certain progression when it comes to looking at the artist’s career. It goes a little something like this: a band pop up on the scene, presenting their masterpiece to the world, something they’ve been working to perfect their entire lives. Their artistic trajectory starts high and trickles off with time as they rush to push out albums in shorter amounts of time– albums that never quite measure up to their first collection that encapsulated years of work. Wye Oak are following a decidedly more oddball path (at least for the arts world) in that they’re a band that’s steadily improving. They’ve evolving and improving in a way that’s more akin to craftsmen than artists: gradually honing and refining their songwriting, putting out more polished work with each album and EP they release.