I first became aware of Wye Oak in the summer of 2010 when i downloaded a mix that a friend made which contained the excellent tune My Creator. That long, slow, dark tune was vaguely folkish but also got a little guitar heavy. Wonderful stuff, so i filed the name of the band away for future reference. Then in 2011 i found a new album by the band out on Merge Records. I have been listening to it for several months, and find it to be very rewarding.
But first, some background. Apparently Wye Oak is a duo consisting of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack, who are from Maryland. Civilian is their third full-length album. The band is often considered "folk" music, i guess meaning that their songs tell the stories of everyday people living their lives. They certainly are not a "folk" band in the same sense that The Everly Brothers were. Their music is loud, dark, intense, with squealing guitars and distortion, and sometimes loud drumming -- rock music in other words.
However, well, Ms. Wasner's singing style is kind of folkish. By that i mean she often kind of mutters her vocals, a soft spoken word flow alongside the guitars. Something in her tone reminds me, at times, of Indigo Girl Amy Ray, while at others she reminds me of Smog's Bill Callahan -- in both cases not in the sound of her voice, but in the tone, inflection, and style of singing. It works within the framework of their songs, and i find her voice pleasant enough. I suppose that some people might be put off by the voice, as it is a little anemic compared to the rest of their song structures, so be forewarned.
I find that this is one of those records that really deserves to be listened to all the way through. That is, the individual songs ebb and flow and the entire album seems to ebb and flow. They are quieter tunes, and louder tunes, and each tune has quiet and loud moments. Quite well done.
The album starts off with Two Small Deaths, in which the music is slowly faded in over a recording of crowd noise, like this was a live recording. Drums tap steadily while guitars chime and Wasner sings dispassionately and coolly. Static rises up to swallow the song, and suddenly we are in The Altar, where Wasner really reminds me of Jason Molina from Songs:Ohia, something in the resonance of her voice here. The song features a see-sawing organ bit and some strange electronic echoes on the drums.
Electronic static swallows The Altar and a powerful, chugging guitar riff comes in, and Wasner mutters, "Holy, Holy, Holy" as the drums thud around here and the guitars jangle and chime. On the chorus, the song chugs mightily with the band just hitting everything on all cylinders. This is one of my favorite tracks of the whole year, just a great, moving song.
Dog Eyes features quirky guitarwork that reminds me of Modest Mouse, as Wasner's voice is a little higher in tone. The title track is next, and this is a dark, moody country-inflected song. Wasner wails away, as the drums keep a rollicking pace and the organ drones.
The next tune, Fish is a quieter song with a staccato guitar riff, deep piano, and organ droning away. As the song progresses, the drone builds slowly, making a nice accompaniment to the repeated guitar riff, while Wasner's voice is added in layers, making for a very surreal effect as she sings harmony with herself. It's a really pretty song, and another favorite.
Plains moves along slowly, more Western than country i guess, with a dark desert feel. Hot As Day is a little poppier, with piano and a bouncy rhythm.
We Were Wealth is a very delicate song, with the guitar under minimal distortion as Wasner wails away, her voice again resonating deeply like it did on The Altar. Halfway through, the song changes, with Wasner singing alongside herself again as the drums and guitar slowly build in intensity. This last half of the song is really beautiful.
And finally the record ends with Doubt, a light folk song of voice and picked guitar. A pleasant end to the record.
I have really enjoyed this album. In fact, this was number 11 on my Top 10 Albums of 2011 list, just barely missing the cut off.