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Wye Oak - Civilian

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Artist: Wye Oak

Album: Civilian

Label: Merge

Review date: Mar. 7, 2011

Wye Oak writes beautiful, understated songs. Despite taking the form of popular music, there is something inherently anti-pop present: ambivalence. For instance, on “Mary is Mary,” from the group’s sophomore album, The Knot, the duo digresses, circles back, reinvestigates, and questions their own beliefs. “And Mary is Mary and I’m not / But what, what good does she have that I have gone?” head existentialist Jenn Wasner asks. Not only is there no resolution to the question, there is no resolution to the song.

On Civilian, Wye Oak operates in the same mode, except they’ve stopped trafficking in negative capability in favor of completeness. “Two Small Deaths” is thematically on point, but their approach (and sound) owes more to the contemporary doubt of David Bazan than John Keats. Emotions resolve in fully fleshed arrangements that slacken and tighten without ever releasing the tension. "Moody" and "dramatic" are generally used in the pejorative, but those adjectives are detrimental only when describing the artist. Much like Zola Jesus (programmatically, that is), Wye Oak puts together songs that resonate deeply because of the writing, not the performance.

It would be a mistake, however, not to talk about Wasner’s vocals in terms of instrumentation. The best place to start is on "Holy Holy." What starts out as an untamed mid-tempo Pavement riff is quickly tempered by a husky, understated drawl that’s as soothing as it is foreboding. She darts between organ monotones and arpeggiated chords effortlessly while rising over the top of a wall of guitars, the most nimble compositional feature on a song that puts simple soft-loud-soft songwriters to shame. And under it all sits a chorus of calm wailing — a prime example of how a few good ingredients are all you need.

Those ingredients are sourced from only the best, with threads of the past used to reinforce the overall weave of the album. Wye Oak’s base is located somewhere in the middle of The Dutchess & the Duke’s city-slicker folk and Califone’s experimental primitivism. Flourishes picked straight from the Top 30 lists at your local college radio station are then peppered in to keep things interesting (despite their adventurousness, don’t think that Wye Oak is not, essentially, an indie rock band; they are).

The most obvious instance of this is “Plains,” a deconstructed take on the Nirvana’s unplugged “On a Plain” if there ever was one. And the two best songs of not only the album but their career take on the Pixies and Modest Mouse without being eclipsed. In terms of extreme guitar calisthenics, “Dog Eyes” takes a page from the latter’s EP Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks, and then overwhelms its own hypnotic agility with tidal waves of riffed noise. The melody is constantly in danger, which only heightens its effect on the senses. “The Altar” features a similarly jagged edge. Instead of driving Isaac Brock off a cliff, however, they manage to subvert Black Francis’s most famous song. Wasner takes over the role of the disembodied voices that introduce “Where Is My Mind?” and drains them of the creep. If Pixies were the perfect choice to score the demolition of society, Wye Oak fits the bill for the rebuilding.

Over the course of three years and three albums, Wye Oak has grown into its sound with a consistency unexpected of an indie rock band. On Civilian, the band shows that it can be serious without being overbearing, evocative without being histrionic, and accessible without being derivative. Here’s hoping 2011 is the year that Wye Oak breaks.

By Evan Hanlon

Other Reviews of Wye Oak

If Children

The Knot

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