Wye Oak is guitarist/vocalist Jenn Wasner and drummer/vocalist Andy Stack. Both are in their early twenties, and they have played in various bands in their native Baltimore for years. If Children, their debut album, demonstrates that both of them have a number of different interests as songwriters. I would loosely describe a plurality of the songs as shoegaze, but there are also slower tracks where the dominant style is country or folk, and a few songs even call to mind the mellow, jazz-derived work of Yo La Tengo.
Indeed, while I wouldn’t want to suggest that Wasner and Stack are purposefully following in the footsteps of Kaplan, Hubley and McNew (frankly, more bands should), If Children does share some of the same creative spirit that went into an album like Painful – generating an astonishing din on one song (see the last minute or so of the album’s first song, “Please Concrete,” for a good example of this) and then immediately following up with a more modest effort (like “Regret,” a quiet song that contains little more an acoustic guitar line, Stack’s vocals, and occasional washes of noise).
If Children holds together despite the sudden changes because the songwriting is consistent enough that Wye Oak doesn’t need to rely on any one style throughout the course of the album. Neo-shoegaze bands are often so dependent on layers of MBV-style sculpted noise that they are unable to pull off anything that doesn’t involve a healthy dose of post-production work. Even at their noisiest – on “Warning,” the album’s first single – Wye Oak does not strive for a disembodied, ethereal racket. Recognizable guitar figures and discernible vocals lie just beneath the feedback. “Orchard Fair,” for instance, has squeals of guitar distortion and amplifier feedback, but the bridge consists of a lead guitar riff and the chorus builds out of Wasner and Stack’s vocal harmonizing. So when “Orchard Fair” follows “Family Glue,” a song whose hook grows out of the strings that play between the verses and during the final chorus, the transition between styles is fairly seamless, and at no point does the band seem to be reaching to prove their versatility.
As with a lot of debut albums, some of the songs here are a lot stronger than others; “Warning” was a fairly obvious first single, since there’s an immediacy to it that many of the quieter songs lack. The second half of the album is also fairly uniform, which causes it to suffer by comparison. But there are still some real gems, like “Obituary,” the final song, which began to stand out only after I’d listened to the album all the way through a few times. There are good reasons, then, to look further than the singles and to take in If Children as a whole.