Under Review: Wye Oak – Civilian

In the handful of years since the release of their ‘just pretty good’ sophomore album, The Knot, Baltimore duo Wye Oak have taken great strides in reinvigorating their distinctive sound. While Jenn Wasner takes an even more prominent vocal role, she and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack continue to forge new paths on the road to total ethereal swoon. Their latest, Civilian, shows off their skills at sonic craftsmanship and dynamics in a set of songs that are alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) rocking and haunting. Coming off the heels of the wonderful My Neighbor/My Creator EP of last year, Civilian features its melodies far more prominently than its predecessors. Wasner sings right up close on “Holy Holy,” a powerful stomp that breaks every few bars for a delicate interlude. On “Fish,” Wasner’s voice burbles with the same tremolo as her guitar. Not all of Civilian’s hooks are vocal; “Dogs Eyes” features a very Andy Summers-like guitar figure and the keyboard stabs on opener “Two Small Deaths” give the song an unstable quaver.

Even on Civilian, Wye Oak’s music is so understated that it runs the risk of alienating the listener long before it endears them. As if to reward on a more immediate level, Wasner and Stack punctuate several of their unhurried compositions with jolts of primal energy. The title track, one of the few ghosts of the duo’s country-steeped past, erupts about halfway through its running time. Similarly, the gentle “Plains” grows ominous when Stack’s pounding drums kick in. Though they’ve played around with their sound from album to album (My Neighbor/My Creator even ventured into light electronica), Wye Oak’s greatest asset is that very sound. Beach House’s Victoria Legrand and St. Vincent’s Annie Clark might have a lock on the spooky frontlady positions these days, but Civilian shows that Wye Oak have just as much potential as any of their melancholy peers.

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~ by E. on March 14, 2011.

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