If Wye Oak have accomplished nothing else with The Knot, they’ve succeeded in getting out from under the shadow of Yo La Tengo. Between the fact that the Baltimore duo comprises a couple that fluidly swaps out the singing, writing and playing chores, and their penchant for spiking the pensive tunes on their vigorously feted but middling debut If Children with big blasts of guitar noise, it seemed like every other review compared the record to Hoboken’s finest.
Jen Wasner does plenty with her guitar on The Knot, but obstreperous six-string explosions are in short supply. Her cranked-up contributions are mixed well down, adding a bit of necessary grit beneath “Tattoo’s” airy harmonies and sparkly piano, or quite momentary, like the power chords that punctuate “Talking About Money’s” martial progression. Elsewhere her playing is more textural or chugs along in Crazy Horse rhythm mode. The instrumental leads are mainly given to pedal steel and violin, which might have their share of genre associations, but in Wasner and Andy Stack’s hands tend not to have the sonic specificity that earned those YLT comparisons. One of the impressive things about Wye Oak is their ability to sound convincing playing these and other instruments; they aren’t particularly flashy, but they never sound like dabblers either.
But the real growth is in Wasner’s singing. She and Stack harmonize to lackluster effect on the opener “Milk and Honey,” but on the next song she takes over and never really lets go. Which isn’t to say that she’s showboating; part of her power comes from the impression she conveys that she’s holding something back. Tinged with hope and regret, Wasner’s voice is an instrument well suited to the album’s lyrics, which track various relationship dynamics and the singer’s affective response to them. It’s well-mapped territory to be sure, but the trek doesn’t get tiring. If anything, The Knot turns the cliché about sophomore slumps on its head by being much stronger than If Children.