As I grow older, new indie-rock bands seem to get younger. The first time I saw a photo of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack, the duo that is Wye Oak, the two didn’t look old enough to be out of high school. (It probably didn’t help that said photo had Wasner and Stack posed in front of a row of Skee-Ball games.) True to the band’s youthful vibe, Wye Oak’s debut album, If Children (natch), brims with an exuberant, searching energy.
As an indie-rock guy/girl duo that hails from Baltimore, Wye Oak of course recalls Beach House. “Archaic Smile,” with its smoky, swirling organ chords, could definitely be a Devotion outtake. But Wye Oak strikes me more as a kid-sibling complement to another Merge band, the Arcade Fire. I know that’s a lofty comparison, but it’s not just hyperbole. Like that much bigger band (in many ways), Wye Oak has a knack for slow-burning, epic songs about family and friends, life and death.
Two such songs are the album’s best tracks. Like many of Wye Oak’s tunes (see also opener “Please Concrete”), “I Don’t Feel Young” starts soft and subdued, with just Wasner singing. After a couple of verse/chorus run-throughs, the guitars start to swell, the drumming becomes more incessant, and Stack joins in on harmony. “If Children Were Wishes” is a stark tearjerker. Wasner follows the title line with, “My mother spent hers on impossible things/ My brother was money, my sister was love, and I was world peace.” Later in the song, she tells a family member, “If hearts were machines that kept running automatically/ Then you wouldn’t be in that hospital bed with that saline IV.” Other songs like “Family Glue” and “Regret,” while not as effective, similarly deal with life’s big-picture themes.
Arcade Fire-lite isn’t the only mode Wye Oak can do. “Orchard Fair,” surely the most rocking song ever written about apples, is a honky-tonk stomper. And “A Lawn to Mow” has a similar, Son Volt-esque countrified feel. Those diversions are fine, but “Keeping Company” — an attempt at the type of chamber pop Lavender Diamond does much better — is the album’s one glaring misstep. Other than that, If Children is an accomplished debut. Not bad for a couple of young ‘uns.