Review : Wye Oak - Civilian
PitchforkCivilian opens with the sound of ambient chatter, a room full of voices quickly washed away by steeled guitar and electronics. It's a shift at odds with the polar dynamics this Baltimore-based duo has sworn by in its half-decade career. In a 2009 interview, The Onion's AV Club asked guitarist/vocalist Jenn Wasner if her band's knack for suddenly juicing volume was done with the live experience in mind. "We won't admit this to ourselves often," Wasner said, "but the way we play live is based on loud-quiet breaks, super-huge jumps in volume and distortion. Sometimes it's really important to explode with huge amounts of volume. Whether it's out of a creative impulse, or just an angry one where it's like, 'Hey everyone, look over here!'….It's fun to absolutely dominate a room for a couple of seconds." But those first seconds of opener "Two Small Deaths" are telling: On this, their third full-length, Wye Oak's tendency to smack listeners with giant, unannounced surges of distortion has been tempered. Wasner and Stack have taken to sanding the edges between quiet and loud, gentle and rough, hard and soft, clean and dirty. From there they've crafted their best LP yet.
It's an awful lot of ground for a duo to cover, but these two have their ways. As in the case of the White Stripes, it starts with Wasner's guitar. While Marnie Stern and Kaki King tend to run away with top honors and attention amongst female guitarists, Wasner's wailing has remained largely unnoticed. Civilian should change that. Whether it's spare, elegant chords like those on closer "Doubt", or the corkscrewing figures of "The Alter" and Sonic Youth snarl of "Holy Holy", she displays marvelous range and power.
Since Wye Oak began recording under the Merge flag in 2008, their combination of boy-girl hymns and dreamy, sometimes shoegazing sonics, have garnered accurate comparisons to the likes of Yo La Tengo. Though they still hew closely to 90s indie rock, their label found a way of describing their sound best as "21st Century Folk." That's a big umbrella but it works because one very malleable influence imbues this particular set of songs more than any other: Neil Young. You can hear Shakey in Wasner's storytelling just as much as her guitar-playing, this album's titular track and centerpiece. It's a fingerpicked, relationship still life that slowly expands before erupting into a clenched-fist coda solo that's one of this album's most arresting moments....full text
PopmattersAt the beginning of Civilian, you can hear the din of people. They shuffle around, their voices muffled, incoherent—just a crowd, some faceless noise. Once opener “Two Small Deaths” starts, however, it introduces a thick fog of atmospherics that acts as a border of sorts. The swell gets cut with sharp guitar notes, with the snap of rim taps, but it’s clear early on: for this record, Wye Oak is breaking away. Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack are entering isolation to surround themselves in this sprawling sound. As it turns out, the solitary suits them well.
In the bunch of great new bands coming out of Merge Records—Telekinesis, the Love Language, Let’s Wrestle, Apex Manor, etc.—Wye Oak may be the most versatile, the hardest to pin down. 2008’s If Children was an ever-shifting collection of gauzy pop songs, while 2009’s The Knot cohered more as a whole, built on the capillary-action swell of blurry guitars and subtle but hefty atmospherics—not to mention Wasner’s breathy vocals. Now, with Civilian, they have meshed the focus of their last record with the restlessness of their debut, moving around in different textures without ever losing sight of the album’s overall feel.
For a duo, Wasner and Stack make an inexplicably big noise, but its size never overwhelms. There are still holes in the songs, room for texture, for variations. While the hazy atmosphere on this record picks up where The Knot left off, Civilian packs a more immediate punch, and hits you with southpaw jabs in the middle of songs, shifting once you’ve bedded down. It’s jarring at first, but every change seems perfectly suited to the track. “Holy Holy” doesn’t build to its chorus so much as the lofty sound of it bursts out of the song, unable to be held back. “Plains” stumbles along, bleary-eyed and beautiful, until its chorus quickly blows up with crashing cymbals and ringing guitars, only to deflate back into the space of the tracks. “Dog Eyes” goes from warbling, pointed riffs—that deftly channel Polvo’s sound without repeating it—but it devolves into grinding guitar squalls before righting itself. The title track is more unassuming, with the light, country-touched glide of the guitar, but slowly and surely the song grows and roils, until all of a sudden it’s on top of you like a late-summer thunderstorm....full text
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